What is a “burner”? Well, since I’ve started living with one, I’ve had a decent amount of exposure to the community of people who not only attend Burning Man but have invested themselves in attending regional events all year round. At these events, people congregate for a number of days, and eventually they burn an effigy, and sometimes more than one. During the days between setup and the actual burn, any number of things can and do happen. If I had to summarize it in a sentence, I’d say it’s free-for-all Disney for adults. Imagination runs wild, and so do the people. Here’s my take on it all.
I’ve wanted to go to Burning Man for years; for me, the appeal of 70,000 people putting together a temporary city is nothing short of astounding. What’s more, some of the most impressive and creative sculptures in the world are there. Some of them are burned down by the end of the week! For a theatre geek like myself, the allure of seeing such creativity exploding at the seams is irresistible, and I hope dearly to go one day soon. Still, it’s always seemed like such a remote and esoteric experience, I had no idea until the last couple of years that Burning Man existed outside the once a year event in the Nevada desert. Nor did I realize that it’s a community that people identify with and define themselves by, though if you think about it perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise.
Burning Man appeals greatly to Gen X-ers and Millennials for the same reason we still want to watch transformers and mutant turtles. We who are constantly accused (maybe rightly so) of never growing up, not only have we turned Halloween into an adult holiday, but we find almost any excuse to dress in silly costumes and get snookered. We can’t even exercise without silly makeup. I’m so accustomed to seeing runners on the way to their latest drag-themed 5K, zombie 10K, or glow-in-the-dark bocce tournament that I hardly even turn my head at the constant stream of crazy costumes mucking about the city streets all year long. Well, here’s another example of us trying to bask in everlasting youth. Always wanted to be a fairy princess in a castle? Sure, why not? Buy some glitter and fairy wings, dye your hair, and build a castle. Then do a lot of drugs and burn it down. Burning Man is in many ways the ultimate example of our generation’s slow saunter into adulthood. It’s no wonder Black Rock City has grown so quickly in the last few years. Rumors has it if they can get the proper permits it will grow to 100,000 within the next five years. Tickets sell out so quickly that you’ve got to be in the know to get one.
But for true burners though, aesthetics aside, burns are a chance to redefine societal rules and recreate the way we interact with our fellow man, complete with a set of 10 principles. These are: (1) radical inclusion, (2) gifting, (3) demodification, (4) radical self-reliance, (5) radical self-expression, (6) communal effort, (7) civic responsibility, (8) leaving no trace, (9) participation, and (10) immediacy. Members of the community follow these principles with varying degrees of seriousness, but they heavily influence the attitudes, interactions, and even slang spoken at these events. Thus, they create a culture that can be somewhat tricky for an outsider or first timer to navigate, especially one who is anti-dogma. You tell me to obey 10 “principles,” and I hear 10 “commandments” and envision a pastor on a pedestal. Hmph.
Not having the capital to head to Burning Man but still interested in seeing what it’s all about, I attended my first (and likely only) regional burn this summer. The festivity was held in rural Maryland, near the PA border, and it was organized by the Philadelphia faction of Burning Man. Though it was nothing to the scale of Black Rock City, this was still several thousand people strong, most of whom found a smaller camp to be part of. The smaller camps usually range from 10 to 40 people and have some kind of catchy theme to them. Ours was hammocks, but they ranged from art making to massage to lava lounges. My favorite was made entirely from kites. Here’s where the principle of community kicks in. These were communities within a community, and some of them were very cool. One of the tricks to doing these festivals correctly is finding a smaller community that you fit in well with. Your camp will then hopefully provide you with a base point, a few people to collude with, booze, and, if you’re lucky, a bit of food.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The 10 principles make it different from an ordinary festival in a number of ways. First, the ideas of self-reliance, demodification, and gifting: If you need something, like food, you can’t buy it. Also, oddly, you’re not really supposed to trade for it…so you either need to be self-reliant (in other words, you brought it with you), or somebody needs to give it to you. Now, paying dues into a theme camp is supposed to alleviate this somewhat, but that assumes that your theme camp is well organized and that people actually care about eating. For me, this proved a problem. As it turns out, when someone is rolling on Molly they don’t like to eat. As I was not, I wanted to eat, but the rest of my camp did not. I could have/should have directly approached other camps, explained my hunger, and asked them to “gift” me food; they probably would have. But honestly I felt awkward approaching high strangers in crazy costumes, which is a funny self-realization considering that I work in theatre. And contrary to what people told me about the generous nature of burners, very few people offered to help me or provide me with gifts. Nor did they always fit in with the principle of radical inclusion. Some of the theme camps felt like cliches, and though most everyone was welcome to drop by, I would not define them as “radical” in their inclusiveness, which is weird because I get this from non-burners all the time. My neighbors in the city are constantly inviting me over for dinner, having open parties, handing me things they baked, etc. I found it ironic that the community that boasts of its counterculture generosity seemed so selfish, while here in the city the most generous of my foodie friends is in law school. Actually, several of my most generous friends are lawyers.
One of the most obvious principles is radical self-expression. It seemed to me that the vast majority interpreted this as nudity, really bizarre clothing, and doing drugs. Yep, lots of drugs. Doing drugs is not technically part of the principles nor is it required, but drugs are a serious and strong part of the experience for many burners. So if you are going to go to one of these events, you need to be comfortable surrounded by people doing them, even if you aren’t. I honestly thought I would be and was surprised at myself that I wasn’t really. Same with the nudity, mostly because I had a hard time interpreting why people were naked. Was it ’cause it breaks the rules? Because it’s comfortable? Because it’s freeing? For some, that was definitely the reason; I met a lovely hippie couple in nothing but REI hiking boots and backpacks, and they were pretty great. But many of the women took it as a chance to take off their clothing and flaunt, which I think I might have looked on favorably if the women were of a variety of sizes and shapes. They weren’t. Turns out, doing lots of drugs makes you super skinny, so I saw lots of model-skinny topless girls who just wanted attention. As a feminist, I take issue that this is such a big part of burner culture. If you say you are trying to break negative cultural norms and then proceed to bask in being ultra-skinny and sexy, you are in fact propagating the WORST of cultural norms.
But not everyone was like this. There were clearly some very talented artists, performers, and puppeteers in the mix. I saw a few awesome sculptures, fire twirlers, and talented DJs, and my favorite thing was a nightclub called “The Temple of Boom,” a spoof of Indiana Jones of course, in which you had to interactively make your way through mysterious rooms in order to gain entrance. At the end of the festival, the temple was torn down and burned. Super cool. Though the visual and performance art was impressive, the music was seriously missing. Talented though many of the DJs were, they cannot replace the utter lack of live instruments, of which there were almost none. No bands at all. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been to an outdoor festival completely void of live music. One burner explained it’s because the community does not want to attract groupies. You get any type of well-known band in and they bring their own fans, which would intrude on the burner experience. Hmmm. Okay, but again, that’s not radically inclusive. That’s actually exclusive. Another burner explained that it would go against the principle of immediacy because you’d have to schedule a concert, set up equipment, etc. Okay, but there were plenty of scheduled workshops and performances throughout the weekend. Personally I think it’s simply because people on Molly/Adderall/LSD cocktails prefer to bop around to dance music. Yep.
So now, on to my favorite principles: participation, civic responsibility, and leaving no trace. I love to learn. I spend whatever little disposable income I have on taking lessons and classes, which I try to make apply to my career somehow, but they don’t always. Like most Gen X-ers and Millennials, I’ve spent so much freakin’ money on school, and that’s why it’s so incredible that the burner community offers workshops at these festivals. Free workshops! They consider it part of the principle of civic responsibility to share skills and participate. So my ticket to the festival bought me unlimited access to free classes. I loved it, I loved it. I was especially interested in learning aerial arts: aerial silks, trapeze, lyra. I took hundreds of dollars worth of free classes, which according to my camp-mates went against the principle of immediacy as I loaded up my schedule with free, planned classes. Apparently the proper way to do it is to wander, randomly stumble upon a workshop and take it, if you should feel the urge. Fuck that. If I could do it over again, I’d ignore all the hippie dippy shit and spend all day in free movement class. Wow. Okay, so that’s the East Coast city girl talking, but I mean, really, the Trapeze School in DC charges $40 an hour for a class in aerial arts. And I also took a roller disco dance class. On old school skates. Just sayin’.
The final principle of leave no trace is why Burning Man is allowed to happen every year in a publicly owned park. Every year, 70,000 people leave, taking every bit of evidence that they’d ever been there right back out again, leaving the space clean and free and in its natural state. That in turn has translated to the rest of the community. Emphasis is put on using only what you need, recycling, carrying reusable water bottles and bags, and creating as little garbage as possible. If nothing else, burners are good for the environment. You know this, especially if you’ve ever been to a big public event. Think about the last time you went to a football game or concert. You can look down at the end at the mountains of trash and litter that people so carelessly chuck around. Then imagine that same space left untouched. It’s truly an amazing feat and probably the thing about this community that impressed me the most.
After careful reflection on the good and bad, I’ve decided that this is not a community I want to be part of per se, but I’m happy to be a visitor there. I’d still like to go to Burning Man once in my lifetime, though probably never again to a smaller festival. The scale of Black Rock City appeals to me, and now that I know what does and doesn’t work for me, I think I’ll be able to navigate through the community in a way that I like, even if it doesn’t obey all 10 principles.