Burning Man is one of the more unique summer festivals. It is an event focused on community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance. It is annually held in the western United States. The name itself comes from the culminating ceremony, which is the symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy referred to as the Man.
The burning occurs on the penultimate night of Burning Man, which is the Saturday evening before Labor Day.
The festival has been located at Black Rock City in northwestern Nevada since 1991. Everything started in June 1986 on Baker Beach in San Francisco, where a small function organized by Larry Harvey and Jerry James built the first Man. Now let’s talk about the principles of the festival and what does it teach us about life.
At its core, Burning Man is a temporary city. There is a population cap at 70,000 paid participants. It has built a community of people who are dedicated to celebrating creativity, cultural differences, knowledge sharing, releasing social stigma, and much more.
If you look at the words of Black Rock City Guide, it says, “Burning Man takes place in Black Rock City, a full-fledged, thriving temporary metropolis. Like any other city, it has essential infrastructure and community services — including city planning, emergency, safety and sanitary infrastructure — to keep it functioning”.
These are primarily volunteer-created and run services, providing just enough structure to support the survival of the civic organism, the rest is up to you.
People willing to make the journey do it because they want to be there and be fully immersed in the community. When the event finishes, there is no trace to show of the bustling city that once was.
Here is a fun fact. Everything started with a phone call. Jerry James and Larry Harvey were to friends from San Francisco. One day, Harvey called Jerry and said, “Let’s…. let’s burn a man, Jerry”. So, they built an 8-feet tall effigy made out of scrap lumber and burnt it on the beach of San Francisco.
Burning Man does not have a single focus. There are many principles, focused mainly on community, artwork, absurdity, and revelry. Participation is encouraged to the event, but all of the visitors must adhere to the 10 Burning Man principles.
These principles are meant to evoke the cultural ethos that has emerged from the event. Larry Harvey originally wrote them in 2004 as guidelines for regional organizing, but they became a universal creation of the general culture of the movement. The 10 principles are:
- Radical inclusion
- Radical self-reliance
- Radical self-expression
- Communal effort
- Civic responsibility
- Leaving no trace
Now let’s explain each and every one of them.
Radical including means “anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community”.
Once upon a time, this meant only those with big pockets. But the program has eventually added a low income ticket program that has opened the doors for participation of anyone. And once you get there, you will be greeted with an attentive welcome of all the volunteers.
Gifting is the second principles, explained in the guidelines as “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”.
Fun fact: your cash at Burning Man is only good for commodities like bags of ice and coffee. Otherwise, the entire economy and community operates on the gifting notion. You never offer someone a gift and expect something in return. It is a valuable lesson to learn.
Decommodification means, “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”.
The lesson here is that balance is the key. Are you constantly bombarding people with sponsored ads and meaningless swag, or are you offer something that is unique and priceless?
The radical self-reliance means that “burning man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources”.
As we said before, money does not work much here. You are expected to arrive at the festival with everything that you could possibly need, and some for the community. Yes, there are those who do not bring everything and rely on the community.
But generally, you need to bring water, shelter, beverages, food, batteries, apparel for the unpredictable weather, and more.
Radical self-expression means “it 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”.
This is why the festival is overflowing with artistic expression. Participants express themselves through extravagant art projects, costumes, accessories, workshops, and more. The lesson here is that any thriving community can have active participants and each and every one of them can express themselves differently.
The communal effort is explained as “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”.
There are many diverse communities here, and it is a lesson that you should give the community a home, a place where members feel empowered to actively show up for each other and contribute to the greater goal.
With that in mind, civic responsibility means “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”.
Prior to the event, every participant is strongly urged to read the Burning Man Survival Guide online and download a PDF for offline browsing and reference. Desert cell service is mostly non-existent, so you need offline sources.
Leaving no trace means “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 better state than we found them”.
This is definitely a valuable lesson we can learn. Protecting the environment is of utmost importance.
Now onto participation, it states, “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”.
Think about this for a second. How amazing would it be if every member of the community was an active participant? At the festival, it is common to hear someone shouting from a megaphone in your direction asking you to participate in whatever experience possible or gift that the camp is offering.
The lesson here is that the more you participate in the community, the more you stand to gain.
And lastly, immediacy means, “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”.
Immediacy is a concept that is powerful in practice, challenging, and liberating each of us in different ways. Basically, it all circles back to the power of the people, of the active participants in a community that is empowered to engage with others in real time.
Now let’s take a look at some quick facts about the event.
- Burning man is the only place on earth that has succeeded to separate from commerce and material wealth
- Money is nothing more than paper on Playa, you cannot buy food, water, clothes, or any other goods. You can change something yours for an interesting thing. Think of it as a family picnic, where the principle of buy/sell does not work
- People give more than they receive, nobody there is interested in wealth, but they want a piece of themselves with Burning Man
- There is nothing you can buy
- There is no trace left behind after the festival finishes
- Artworks get a second life after the festival. Only the central objects are burned, while other works travel to various exhibitions and museums
- It transforms people through its spiritual practices and experiences
- It is a great opportunity to face your fears and prejudices. In the desert, you can overcome yourself and reconsider your views on life
- Newbies setting foot in the land of Burning Man are called Virgins. Entering the gate they have to cross the line made in sand and then roll in the sand, ringing the gong, and shout “I am not a virgin anymore” three times
- Dead people get their honor as well, there is a temple erected every year to honor the deceased souls. Many people write the name of the deceased, while some bring photos and ashes
- Burners have a separate dictionary, their own glossary complete from A to Z. Newcomers have to watch out for themselves
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