Monday, September 14, 2009

The Truth About Burning Man

The Burning Man festival is every single stereotype you've heard of and absolutely none of them. Logistically, it's a (seemingly) instant city in the middle of the desert three hours north of Reno inhabited by 45,000 people for the week leading up to Labor Day. Actually, it's a year's worth of prep and months worth of labor, surveying the concentric circle of streets, the chronological spokes, the outer pentagon, the playa, the plazas, center camp and public utilities (toilets, medical stations, ice sales). Participants stream in beginning midnight the Sunday before, with bikes, tents, coolers, shade structures, art cars, every form of IL and LED lighting, lounge chairs, RVs, gourmet bars, tiki torches, geodesic dome parts, giant playing cards, fabric, wire, trampolines, balance beams, saloon doors, solar panels, duct tape, you name it. The unprepared and the insane try to sleep in their cars (hot, cold, hot, dirty, and impossible) and the luxurious lounge in air conditioned airstreams or shower in RVs. Most pitch tents, rig up as much shade as possible, and illuminate at night. On Saturday, the man is burned; on Sunday, the temple is burned; then the vast landscape is scoured for MOOP (Material Out of Place) by all of us and the Burning Man Department of Public Works (wearing my favorite new discovery - the utilikilt!), and it goes back to being a sandy blank canvas until prep time next year.

Hearing stories and glancing at photos, you might think it's Mad Max meets a late 80s rave meets Woodstock without the music (no, there are no musical acts at Burning Man). Burning Man is actually, as the 10 principles proclaim, a radical exercise in self-sufficiency, creativity, consciousness, and generosity. The exchange of money is banned other than their own sales of ice and coffee (one out of necessity, one I imagine out of furthering community and a coffee culture addiction). The primary focus is radical self-expression, which takes the form of art strewn across the 4 1/2 square miles of vast desert playa; art cars - all of which have to have permits from the Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) - which roll around the alphabetical streets by day and illuminate the ethereal swirling sands by night; and clothing, or really, costuming, free from all the restraints of conservatism in default world and all the worries of a society emasculated, efeminated and suffocated by the demands of a media driven body image. There is nudity, most certainly, but it is what the nudity - and every variation between it and a polar bear costume - means that is by far the more interesting point. What you wear or don't wear at Burning Man expresses the absence of creative limitation, the body as a form of communication, and an opportunity for personal responsibility and empowerment. Hot pink fishnet hose with LED wire is an art project, a trust exercise, a membership rite, an open door, a sense of confidence and playfulness, and the feeling of gender/body/life freedom that we are not regularly allowed, even in places seemingly as garb-liberal as West Hollywood. Burning Man is trend free, and style full.

I fell in love with the utilikilt (, and the more I know about them, their makers, and their wearers, the more I love them. Founded in 2002 in order to fund a mobile global art project of double-decker buses "putting on an interactive road show of music, dance, video art, and drama, and leaving change in its wake", the utilikilt was one in a series of 'Form Follows Function' products that branched into a phenomenon. The company follows a 'business with a conscience' model, promoting social, environmental, and economical responsibility where profits are measured by community impact as much as financial balance, and where preconceived limitations are unacceptable. Of equal if not greater importance, though, is the sheer quality and functionality of the product - attention to detail, rugged, tool-holding, pocketed, comfortable (or so I hear), and durable. The utilikilt is an amazing garment hybrid of self-expression, liberation, and cultural ritual meets workhorse. Having gone to a LACMA event this week with a man in a utilitkilt, I have to say, they also have an impact in Los Angeles.

The art at Burning Man is not 'high' art or 'low' art, fine art or folk art, not created as an expression of self or ego, but as a contribution, as a gift of interaction or inspiration, and as a way to proactively make community. Many of the hundreds of pieces on the playa - which I only had time to see a fraction of - require user input. These are sound or light pieces, making poetry on a six foot stool and a 1940s typewriter, metal that breathes fire, painting. There are sculptural pieces that are viewable and not overtly interactive, but often those become nodes of the city where gathering occurs, or landmarks that provide direction, or meeting locations for a cell phone-free world. Even the majestic temple is there for writing reflections on, adding notes and remembrances of burns and burners past, getting married (where strangers show up with hand made flowers and gifts and volunteer photographers document).

The complete non-monetary society, as AlexG pointed out during the three hour exodus, shifts the focus of exchange from the object to the relationship. By no longer trading stuff for stuff - money for trinkets, say, or even trinkets for trinkets - the exchange itself becomes the gift, a gift of presence and interaction, a gift of your efforts, a gift of the time, place, and conversation you choose to have with your fellow citizens. The man on the ice cream bike gave out and received a lot of love with each scoop of cookies and cream. All art cars - space permitting - are public transportation. That rolling front porch towing an outhouse took me from Inherit to Evolution, while a woman in an apron cut red peppers in her half a kitchen just like she was home. Dance buses roam the playa playing techno music. Giant fish, a three story reel-to-reel, pirate ships, the Brooklyn Bridge, and hundreds of others all circled the Man at the Burn like a cadre of animated kids at a campfire. In these interactions with strangers, the medium is not the mundane symbol of wealth, but the very non-mundane act of connection.

The other objective which truly shapes the experience of Burning Man is the 'leave no trace' policy. Everything that comes in with you, also goes out. Everything. Not just tents and bikes, not just leftover food and garbage, but whiskers if you shave, soap suds if you shower, toothpaste spit and drops of hand sanitizer. No matter how many times people encourage you to conserve water by turning off the spout while brushing your teeth at home, the degree of waste is far more apparent when you limit yourself to two ounces from the gallon jug, which, once filled with spit and toothpaste, you must drink, evaporate and separate, or take back out in your car. Other than highly significant hydration, your grey water creation very quickly dwindles to near nothingness. You cook what you plan to eat, you pour what you plan to drink, and you save and reuse and recycle and gift as much as you possibly can otherwise.

Formally, as taken from the website, the principles are as follows:

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.


Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.


In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.


Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

I read these before I left, but, like all the proclamations and expectations, they ring a bit hollow and even hokey from the outside. What is truly amazing about being there is what abiding by these principles actually does to the participants, which, in turn, does to the society at large.

They say 'welcome home' when you arrive at the gate, and what they mean is - welcome to a world that is somewhat optimistically utopian, where we are able to shift the values and priorities to those that are human and meaningful, if only for a short time, if only in this place, if only for those who are willing to drink their spit and pee in a portajohn and get filthy and hot and breathe dust for a week. I hope I, and thousands of others, have brought back with us the spirit of generosity, creativity, and responsibility that Burning Man seems to foster, and that it infects our neighbors and friends and everyone we know and everyone they know, and so on. Welcome, welcome, welcome indeed.