How was Burning Man?

Rohan Roberts
Sep 24, 2018 · 5 min read

How was Burning Man?

In 2016, I attended my first Burn. By August 2018, I had participated in my third Burning Man in Nevada, two AfrikaBurns, and designed and built the temple at the 2017 Netherlands Burning Man. The regional Burns are absolutely wonderful, but nothing compares to the real deal in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

I invariably get asked the question: “How was Burning Man?” Over and over again, it’s the same question, “How was Burning Man?” I say to them, as Jamie Wheal would: “You have to go there to know there.” But obviously, that won’t satisfy the curious. So, I offer my spiel about how it was a transporting, transformative, and utterly transcendental experience. Then I mention how it’s the Olympics of art; an apotheosis of STEAM; a permission engine; a crucible of creativity; a vortex of artistry; a whimsical fairyland; a Disneyland for adults; a spa for the mind; a metamorphosis of the soul; a theatre of the absurd; a counterculture critique; a hyper-freak show; a Liquorice allsorts of whimsy and play; a raging, surreal maelstrom of lights, colours, sounds, emotions, and experiences; and a heterodox hodgepodge of people’s dreams pouring out into reality.

Is it a Festival?

“Is it a festival?” they ask. The short answer is no. I explain to them how, in its essence, Burning Man is a transient, imaginative, civic community out in the barren flatlands of Black Rock Desert in Nevada. At its core, Burning Man is an experiment in alternative living where you witness an outpouring of generosity. It is a celebration of the human spirit, human imagination, and human ingenuity and that experiencing it is like being slingshot through a wormhole to the centre of the universe only to emerge into an alien world where the kindest, most ingenious, creative, playful, innovative, warm, generous, ridiculous, and preposterous people live. It is a place where art is elevated to civic responsibility and gift-giving is a core principle. It is a place where the random flotsam and jetsam of human society and global cultures wash up for one week then wash out, as participants return to the default world physically drained, spiritually cleansed, and emotionally inspired.

Erik Davis says it best:

“One often hears Burning Man dismissed as a theme park, but what’s more important is that it contains thousands of theme parks: little pocket universes butting heads. Space-time itself seems to morph into a flea market, a masquerade of memes, or the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars. Burning man is a promiscuous carnival of souls, a metaphysical flea-market, a demolition derby of reality constructs colliding in a parched void.”

People refer to BM as technopaganism, or neotribalism, or modern primitivism. But BM is, quintessentially, a postindustrial liminoid event, where we see a transgressive, marginal, and otherworldly space for counterculture resistance where we see the possibilities of what human society could look like when we have abundance for all. BM is a laboratory — a testing ground — a blueprint — for what we could do together as a species in a post-A.I. world of UBI where everyone is freed up to play, create, and have fun.

The Media

Burning Man is often portrayed in the media as some wild, frenetic, carnivalesque, Dionysian orgy with drunken, drug-addled, naked people running around a fire. This is typical of lazy reporters who have neither the lexicon nor the gumption to adequately describe what Burning Man is. They often portray it as pagan, primitive, and tribal, while also declaring that it is the ultimate technological and postmodern happening.

In an article for the Washington Post, Michael Colton writes about the “primitive survivalist aspects of the festival may seem to contrast with the digital world of its inhabitants, but Burning Man has become a pastiche of various parts of our culture and history. It has the spontaneous-gathering feel of Woodstock, the spirituality and temporary community of the Rainbow Gathering, the campiness, outrageousness and identity-transformation of the drag-queen scene, the edginess and danger of a Harley-Davidson convention and the burning and worship of, well, the ancient Druids.”

Writing for the Australian Financial Review, Alex Priedite describes Burning Man as “the influential tribal-techno-feral-pagan-digital event, happening, rave or whatever in the world. Out there in the desert, witches, warlocks and wired sorcerers use technology as if it were some electronic crystal ball. It is a living post-postmodernist Hileronymous Bosch painting with a just a touch of Fellini.”

Transformation

Why do so many Burners focus on the transformative effects of Burning Man? Lee Gilmore talks about how being on the playa allows one the opportunity to peel away layers of default cultural messages and constructions of identity and in doing so, people discover a core sense of identity that is deemed somehow more authentic. Larry Harvey, the founder of BM, once said, “We ask participants to commune with themselves, that they regard their own reality, that essential inner portion of experience that makes them feel real as if it were a vision… No one can say what that vision might be. We just ask people to invent some way of sharing it with others.”

Burning Man is at once sacred and profane, and spiritual and irreverent. Burning Man themes, as Lee Gilmore puts it, include “spirituality absented from religion; ritual absented from dogma; performativity, ideology, and ethos; multicultural and hybrid religious symbols; immediacy and transformation; anticommodification sentiments; and utopian discourses of social protest. It is a place of visceral transformative encounters that derives from a wealth of cultural sources: from wicker men to contemporary culture jammers and is choc-a-block full of compelling, provocative, and weird things.”

The Adjacent Possible

There are many ways to frame what Burning Man is. At the end of the day, Burning Man is a physical manifestation of a Rorschach inkblot: it can be whatever you want it to be.

At one point at the peak of the blistering heat and unforgiving wind — in the midst of a whiteout dust storm, my friend Kevin (aka, Eskimo) turned to us and said, “People have come to hell and created heaven.” Burning Man is my heaven. I think about it ALL the time. It’s a heterotopia — an example of the adjacent possible. I daresay, it’s the closest thing we’ve got to Utopia (literally, both “good place” and “no place”.)

I miss it very much. And I can’t wait to go back next year. It’s home.

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Here’s perhaps the funniest response to the question, “How was Burning Man?” Some exaggeration, some satire, some caricature, but lots of truth.