Burning Man is a culture of co-creation

At Burning Man last week, I attended a talk by a geographer who claimed that what makes the temporary city so special is the location: that the Black Rock desert, with its particular difficulties and affordances, is what shapes how we build Black Rock City, and thus, shapes Burning Man.

I disagree. Burning Man is not a place, it is an act of co-creation; it is the periodic coalescence of a living, shifting community. Sure, the petri dish in which we cultivated it was this particular desert. But by now we’ve achieved a self-perpetuating culture that can survive and thrive in new environments.

The center of the Burning Man culture is the 10 Principles. The Principles weren’t there at the beginning — the founder, Larry Harvey, added them later — but they do serve as a kind of “constitution” by which the culture both propagates and remains self-similar over time and space. (In case you’re interested, they are: radical inclusion; radical self-reliance; radical self-expression; gifting; decommodification; communal effort; civic responsibility; leave no trace; participation; and immediacy.)

I’ve been to Burning Man 6 times, but I started burning on the East Coast. My first burn was Transformus, the North Carolina regional. It took place in a setting almost completely the opposite of Black Rock City: on a verdant orchard, in a temperate rainforest just outside of Asheville. To my first Transformus, I arrived understanding almost nothing, feeling like a clueless outsider. By the second day, I knew I was home. People were wearing clothing that expressed their divergence from the rules of the “default world,” wearing whatever made them feel good or powerful or beautiful, an invitation to everyone to create their own unique identity. People were open and welcoming and helpful and civic-minded. They were mindful of the environment and never left trash behind. But the thing I remember affecting me deeply was the culture around gifting and decommodification. People would approach and offer something, expecting nothing in return. It was a shock. When a stranger approaches you on the street in default… they want something from you. If they offer you something, you know there are more than likely strings attached. At a burn, it isn’t so. People offer food, art, gifts because they made them to share. Then and now this norm of burner culture serves as a reminder to me that people are good and want to make each other happy.

Transformus — and later other regional burns — taught me burner culture very well. I would even say that on average, the attendees of regionals do a better job of living up to the Principles. Burning Man has received so much media attention that it is now attracting flocks of “tourists” who know very little of the culture. Will Black Rock City be able to maintain its authenticity over the long term, or has the spirit of Burning gone — as Larry Harvey himself claimed — to the regionals?

To the geographer’s point, I do agree that any place with affordances and limitations as extreme as the high desert will affect whatever city we build there: but Black Rock City isn’t Burning Man because of its location. If tomorrow we lost the rights to the desert, and moved the festival to the plains or even to the hills, we would lose the Black Rock City experience, but not Burning Man. We would lose, among other things, the extreme blankness of the canvas on which we create the city, an aspect which is poetic but not necessary. We would lose the alkaline dust, which has perhaps been a major contributor to keeping our sharing economy relatively sanitary, as it’s sort of like hanging out in baking soda all the time. We would have to find solutions. And we would lose the difficulty of just getting there and surviving, a factor which has probably kept the “tourist” population down, as going to Burning Man is right now a major commitment, and the shared struggle is part of the experience.

this is only normal at Burning Man

What would remain is the culture, and this is the ground on which Burning Man is built. It would look different, but the meaning would be the same. The promise of burning is, at its core, the invitation to contribute to the culture that we create by participating in it. The blankness vital to this creation is not environmental but human, a resetting of expectations, a putting on the table of everything as being fair game for questioning and creativity.

This culture encourages art in everything, in every moment. There is no “normal,” no daily routine, and many if not most of our cultural scripts are broken, replaced by new expectations symbolized by the Principles. For this reason, every moment a participant has at a burn is a co-creation on some level: between individuals and environment, or individuals and the creations of others, or groups creating experiences for others, or people interacting with each other, or subcultures experiencing each others’ created social worlds — every interaction constitutes a co-creative experience.

watching the effigy burn from out beyond the upper lake, Transformus 2014

Transformus was held on land that included a mountain and two lakes. There are things that Burning Man has that Transformus doesn’t — but Transformus had all sorts of things that Black Rock could never have: camps tucked into groves you had to hike up to; art incorporating trees and nature; an enormous waterslide; a “beach;” floating bars; swimming meditations; a full viking funeral complete with flaming arrows; a water temple; a fire-powered “hot tub” built into the creek — and we have by no means exhausted the possibilities for co-creating beautiful and wonderful things in this environment. Unfortunately, the burn finally outgrew its old venue, and has now moved to a new location. It will take time for people to get to know the land well enough to make full use of its features during the short time the temporary city exists — but they will. The culture of co-creation is compelling, and people will keep finding ways to recreate it.

Burning Man is a vision of what it is like when people intentionally co-create their world, and that is what makes it so powerful. Participants find themselves shaking off that which is unneeded, re-forming their habits around only that which they decide to keep, and in that freedom discovering deep wells of creative potential, and connecting with others in raw, authentic, electric ways. It is both humbling and empowering to see the power and transformative potential of such a culture of co-creation.