Chuck pushed me toward a cool person who had never been to Burning Man. She has done other festivals of an autonomous and DIY nature, so some of the core concepts are familiar. But there is something both special and important about Burning Man and I am going to try to capture it through a funological lens here.
Burning Man has A High Capacity to Change Participants’ lives. There is a combination of social experiences, cultural experiences, and musical and drug-induced experiences that creates plenty of invitations to do things very differently than you do in your mainstream life. These are occasionally memorably fun and often unique. If your mainstream malady is boredom, there are lots of different ways BM can shake you up. If you are looking for something wild and new to add to your life, BM offers a smorgasbord of possibilities.
Size Matters: I have been to a number of small and mid-sized events (including, most recently, Transformus). These are wonderful and often homey. But there is something fantastic about the array of events and displays on the BM esplanade — the scale is grander and the possibilities it invites feel amplified. BM is a big budget affair. There are legitimate critiques of the waste associated with making this event happen. And it does happen and it happens in a majestic and dizzying way.
Safe Loss of Control. One of the most powerful BM experience is the white-out. During a white-out, you find yourself unpredictably in a circumstance where you must cease anything you are doing because of freak sandstorms of indeterminate length. Sometimes these are so bad that you are forced to take shelter with people you don’t know, in their RV or secure theme camp. This type of chaotic, random loss of control is both liberating and challenging. White-outs commonly create random forced encounters between previously unknown burners. (I spent two hours with an 80-year-old retired insurance executive who had been brought by his son; we had a wonderful, rambling conversation, which certainly seemed to shake up some of his thinking.) While the sandstorm can strip you of control, it is mostly safe to experience. This is a rare and funologically significant combination.
Burning Man is an Ordeal. You both participate in it and you survive it. Almost everyone has a lost or stranded story. Just getting in and out of the grounds can be an ordeal. Because of the harsh environment, machines break and then there are heroic efforts to fix or substitute services. You have to think about what you want to bring to this eclectic mix of camping necessities and party frivolity. In a way the mix of what you bring (including the theme camp you might join) does a lot to frame and shape your experience.
The Infrastructure is Massive and Robust. Fifty thousand tickets at $300 each is a chunk of change. Millions are spent on art and porta-potties and a usurious land rental from the BLM. The 37 paid Burning Man Inc staff are supplemented by literally thousands of volunteers at many different levels of commitment. An integral part of the Burning Man experience is delivering the internal mail, working some wild theme camp like the human carcass wash, or working as a greeter.
Burning Man is Non-Commercial: Once inside the gates of this bizarre alternative reality, those fantastically powerful dead president trading cards (aka money) suddenly become valueless. Burning Man is without vendors and commercials and for most participants these are the only days in their year without cash and consumer culture. In its place is a system largely of gift giving, with a smaller amount of bartering.
Ten Principals: One of the things which the Burning Man organizers have gotten quite right are the Ten Principals of the event. Some of these are borrowed from other time-tested festival traditions like Leave No Trace; the idea that you should pack out everything you bring in. And radical self-reliance; no one is going to take care of you and you need to bring everything you need for this particularly harsh environment.
But other principals are more important. Gifting and decommodification have already been mentioned. The radical self expression principal has been instrumental in changing peoples lives, because it asks the question — who are you really and how do you show up as that person? Participating in creating the culture and the event, instead of just observing or consuming it makes this festival a powerful crowd-sourced event.
The last of the Ten Principals is Immediacy, for this I will just lift from the official BM site:
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.
It does not make sense to hassle with all the time and costs if what you are looking for is an all-night techno music party (which there certainly are at Burning Man) because there are far more accessible places for this. And if you are looking for something magical, inexplicable and rare, then BM just might be the right place for you to spend the week before Labor Day.
There is also a Dark Side to Burning Man which you should read about before you decide to go. I wrote these two posts as a pair, but the Dark Side has gotten much more attention.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
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