Burning Away the Default World
Take a prehistoric lakebed in the middle of the desert, a Bureau of Land Management governed public space in remote Nevada, go way out past Pyramid Lake, through the Indian Territory, and far, far from the casinos, to a relatively lawless free state. Then add tens of thousands of people adhering to bold principles of experimental community, and be amazed.
In 2004, a friend of mine from California invited me to go with him to Burning Man, to camp with his camp. The theme that year was “Vault of Heaven.” I signed up, paid my dues, and in August, about a month before we were to arrive at Black Rock Desert, he told me that he’d have to return to India unexpectedly. He said, “Christine, you are on your own. I am sorry. They are great people; you will really like them. Just be open.”
Aside from my friend’s words of wisdom, I knew nothing about the area or the Burning Man culture and people. I knew not a single soul. I had taken a “responsible role” in organizing our camp prior to the festival, meal organizing for 80 people. But I did very poor research. I thought it would be a big party in the desert. When I heard “desert,” I thought sand dunes, so I packed a tent and a sleeping bag, flew into Reno, Nevada, got water and a bike, and headed out to Black Rock Desert, with a traveling companion from Chicago who was also new. Instead of a soft, sandy surface, this desert was hard-packed and rock solid. I was unequipped—without goggles or a mask—for the frequent, 100 mph wind and dust storms. The intensity of these storms created a dramatic, post-apocalyptic landscape.
After parking the car in the middle of the desert, you can’t use it until you leave. The modes of transportation are foot, bicycle, or mutant vehicle (MV, or art cars). What is an art car? Maybe it’s a miniature cupcakes that can only fit two people. Or a mammoth Noah’s ark mobile placed on a truck bed, where, to be transported by this vehicle, it was preferable that you be dressed as an animal. There were fantastical art cars over the years: a giant disco duck dance floor on a truck chassis, a five-story pirate ship, a city bus with flexible joiners wrapped in silks and lit from within. At night, that looked like a giant glow-worm crawling across the desert.
As we pulled up to the entrance of the camp on that first day, I realized that I had also overlooked the memo on costumes. I saw people clad in every manner: from Mad Max and Steam Punk to brawny men in sheer lingerie and girls in loincloths during the day and pink fur with neon trim at night, to people dressed in nothing but silver body paint. Or just nothing.
Around the camp, there were giant baskets of lingerie and evening gowns and crazy costumes that people have collected over the years. The goal was to simply find something that expresses you. Imagine that we didn’t have any cultural prescriptions or stereotypes, and we could put on whatever makes us feel comfortable. I was a woman coming out of daily business attire, my first choice was this an extravagant lightweight white goddess dress with leafy headbands and other accessories – the feminine essence: flowing and at ease.
The only strategy upon entering this community was to march towards freedom, co-creation, expression. The men and women here were yearning for a different culture, where people interacted under an entirely new context- such as: There is nothing to get from anyone else; there is only giving to other people.
We didn’t have access to any of the protections of social status that exist in day-to-day civilization. For me that meant no business cards, no suit, no fancy car, no title.
At Burning Man, you are just you and your mostly naked self, and your currency is the way you treat the strangers around you. The more authentic you are, whether that is someone outrageous or reserved, the richer your experience. Whatever feels like the most genuine way to interact, you do that. But if you hang back and stay in observation, then you are not joining in; you are not creating. This, by Burning Man standards, is losing.
Following that ethos, the whole purpose was to embrace the freedom and figure out what I could give to the community. That first day, I was overwhelmed by the freedom I had. It dawned on me that nobody was telling me what to do, where to go, when to wake up, what to eat. I’d had four kids at home for the past nineteen years at this point, so I had to ask myself, What do I actually want to express? What do I actually feel? What is my gift? I spent the next few days investigating. I was in a vacuum, surrounded by 50,000 other men, women, and children in the middle of the desert.
In freedom, I rose early, because I don’t like to rave all night and I honor sunrise. In my work-week schedule at home, I didn’t know that I took real joy in rising early. I decided that my gift would be yoga classes on demand, whenever someone felt the need. I would go out into an open spot on the playa and put up a sign that said, “personalized yoga right now,” and I would move people through a fifteen-minute practice and send them on their way softened and opened.
Our camp was made of OG burners: They had participated since 1994. They were the organizers of a main event, the critical tits ride, in which thousands of women ride topless from one point of the playa to the other as a proclamation of female pride and gender celebration in every form. In our camp alone, there were eighty people. They were the most open people I had ever met in my life. I was stunned by the amount of affection and touching and joint play initiated without the usual tentative small talk. I had never met any adults who were just goofing off and playing for a week for no reason.
After the first couple of days, it was clear that one of the things newcomers to the festival experience is the inability to say ‘no’ to events or ideas. Everything is done in the name of freedom and expression, so personal boundaries are weakened. While everything is experimental, and people have all this space to tune into what feels right for them, that space can also be taken advantage of.
In their daily lives, these aren’t oddball people: they are doctors, nurses, clerks, students, engineers, artists and CEOs. But they manage to maintain their devotion to making and creating the magnificent art projects and installations to share at the festival. Some do it as a side gig all year long.
People’s imaginations are ridiculously expansive, and their creations blew my mind: gigantic structures growing out of the desert floor or suspended in the air. Each project has its own purpose, but at the center of it all is the recognition that humans have a natural instinct to create and express themselves.
Over the years the art has been stunning: there were two oil tankers that were suspended vertically like two scorpions stinging one another from the tail. There were beautiful, twenty-story, mesh dancing women. One friend built a large submarine mobile projection lab. He would pull up near a camp, turn on his immense sound system, and then project images onto whatever surface was available. Another man carved out a whole section of his welding business during the year to make a giant illuminated metal heart. One year, there was a stunning sculpture of a man and woman embracing. They emerged from the desert floor from the chest up and reached several stories high. When you climb inside, you discover that the couple has a conjoined single heart.
Every year there is a temple. One year it was a massive, intricate structure resembling a post-apocalyptic Taj Mahal; its mimicry of lace stonework was made of railcars full of jigsaw puzzle remnants. It was a structure assembled and built upon daily, until the final day. As in all years, people write their memories and losses and things they wanted to burn from the past year. Beautiful altars, incredible shrines are constructed. They are all released in the fire. These installations are built upon daily, until the final day. Some get repurposed and have permanent homes once the festival is over, but almost all of the art is burned to the ground at the end of the week.
The impermanence in the work pushes us to confront questions about our creative and destructive impulses. Why do we build? Why do we create beauty and deliberately destroy it? We build until the end. We build and create for it’s intrinsic good. We build without attachment to monument making.
At Burning Man, we condense the impermanence of life into ten days. Impermanence is the real truth of our lives anyway. We create because it is in our nature, despite our knowledge that it will all be burned in the end.
I wanted to know, where does this come from in people? This creative work, what’s it all about?
In the midst of all the group camps was a common space for conversation and hanging out. Here, an artist named Ping had built a three-tiered teepee-like structure. It was wide at the base, and as you moved upward, what would be about a traditional story- and-a-half of a building, there was a Mylar shade structure. You go up another third of the tee-pee structure, and clear, transparent disks were hanging from cables. There were thirteen disks in total, facing downward around the circle, and etched into each disk was the symbol of one of the world religions. One disk, the last, was blank. As the sun rose and set throughout the day along its cycle, its rays passed over each image so that each religious symbol projected, magnified, onto the Mylar sheet at its respective time of day. Over the course of the full day, each one of the religions dominated. By the time it got to the thirteenth symbol, there was nothing: empty space meant for a religion yet to be invented. In the center of this structure was a suspended chair attached to a pulley and lever system. The intellectual experiment was to get in the chair and have someone hoist you all the way to the top, above the discs, above their religious images, until you could get a full view of all thirteen rings. The experiment sought to prove that, to get a full picture, you must rise above your dogma. He called it the “Dogmatron”.
The model of people being, as the core of human nature, in competition with one another, wasn’t dominant here. Here, I was surrounded by people who were convinced that there is a whole other way to live. It was proof that it is not impossible to shift culture, that we can set principles and then try to live them, that this possibility is not pure science fiction. If I look at how all of the experiences rolled out of this week at Burning Man, how the chain of opportunities presented themselves to me, I start to see how one random conversation led to this meeting, which led to this invitation, which led to this life-changing moment. All around us, there are people who say, “Hey, look over here! Look at this thing that I discovered!” Or they tell us about a thought they’re having, and if we listen to them, they take us on amazing journeys. We get to go down the rabbit hole with them. We can also be that person for others. It matters, then, if we are open to hearing these people call us over to what they are seeing or thinking.
But, if we’re stuck on our own agenda, those opportunities will feel diversionary for us and we miss out. Can we each be a ‘yes’ for those kinds of invitations?
Fundamentally, this festival (and the hundreds of outposts in local communities far and wide that have spun off of the main festival) is trying to lead a vision of what life might be like if we were to reorient ourselves around a new set of principles for living, one that exists in the cross hairs of individual freedom and collective responsibility, with equal measures of work and play, in challenging environments.
It has of course changed in the last decade, but if you’re looking for love, and expression, don’t be afraid. Try it on for size.
Have a great burn, friends.
What Burning Man was doing was a living experiment in a new form of community, and what I experienced wasn’t random, but rather a by product of intentional community design:
These are the 10 core organizing principles of Burning Man :
Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting: 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.
Decommodification: 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.
Participation: 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.
Immediacy: 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.