Why Society Needs Burning Man: Can Transformational Festivals Be a Source of Change?

Well, it looks like we’re getting into serious stuff here. In the previous two articles (go jog your memory with the Burning Man and Transformational Festivals publication here on Medium) we addressed the multifaceted relation between the Silicon Valley elite and Burning Man. To make a long story short (and not to ruin the surprise), we ended up acknowledging that these two worlds mutually and deeply need each other.

Specifically (yes, we’re giving something away, but don’t cheat and go read the whole story), we were driven to the conclusion that Burning Man triggers some creative processes into the tech elite, while the latter makes the perfect mean to spread the innovation and change fueled by the festival into society.

Now it’s time to go even deeper, eviscerating the reasons behind this relationship: what makes the festivals’ ecosystem a fertile terroir for innovation and disruption? Is there a social need that gets — in a more or less conscious way — satisfied while all these processes unfold?

And here’s a word that made us tick: change

Analysing hundreds of academic and autobiographical sources for Blaze of Inspiration. The Impact of Festivals ‘from another planet’ on our society, backed by social big data, we tried to explain (and later track the topic within festival communities) what is the change that Burning Man and transformational festivals can bring into society.

Here are some of the most interesting theories on the change topic, from scientific fields such as physics and psychology, as well as social sciences and anthropology.

Burning Man as a laboratory for society

As Larry Harvey, Founding Board Member and co-founder of Burning Man, said of the Festival in a 1993 interview:

“In practice, what we do has historic parallels. In the ancient world, half the world’s great religions came out of either the desert or the mountains, with the idea that you were in contact with powerful natural forces. […] we are laying the infrastructure of a temporary civilization. It’s a laboratory to consider how perhaps society can be constructed and how we can critique it.
For what purpose? As Harvey puts it in the Summer 1993 newsletter of the Burning Man Project, “Culture and meaning should be something we create through our interactions with one another as we take part in the shared life of a community. But modern society discourages active participation and encourages us to be passive consumers. Instead of a community, we’ve become a mass. As a mass, we don’t participate in culture, we consume it. We live together in isolated stalls. The context of community, the vital interplay of human beings, has been forgotten. What we consume has no inherent meaning or transcendent value to us. It is no surprise we thirst for thrills. Consumption doesn’t lead to satisfaction, only more consumption. If we’re to break this cycle, we must somehow reclaim community and create culture out of that experience.”

A spectacle without domination

What Harvey is pointing to here is what French philosopher Guy Debord has called “The Society of the Spectacle.” Debord wrote that life in the 20th century presents itself to us as an accumulation of spectacles, images, and events that happen to us, alienating us from life as a directly lived experience. The spectacle mediates our social relations, separating us from one another and from the material world. Debord viewed the spectacle as the outgrowth and expression of the dominant mode of capitalist production and understood our infatuation with spectacle as a justification for the existing social-economic system. Mass dissemination and consumption of spectacles makes us feel like capitalism is a natural part of life. We do, as Harvey points out, become passive consumers, relinquishing our will and desire to change the world or create a new society.
Of course, the clever irony is that the actual Burning of the Man is a spectacle par excellence. […] Yet it is a spectacle without any commentary or meaning, except that which participants bring to it. […] If there is a definitive meaning of the Man, it is that there is no definitive meaning. It is, thus far anyway, a spectacle without domination. A spectacle that requires our active involvement for it to exist at all.

(source: http://bad.eserver.org/issues/1995/21/wray.html )

Containers of quality interactions and healing experiences

According to transformational festivals expert Jeet Kei Leung,

“[…]transformational festivals are playing a significant role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, achieving transformation through inspiration, […] creating the world now as dreamed up for this very moment. As containers of these quality interactions and experiences they become markers in our lives returning a sense of mythos that is missing from the offering of the mainstream culture. […]”

Moreover, what could be truly transformative, says Leung, is the Supported Healing Catharses: born spontaneously within the communities (and bringing back ancient healing rituals like Temazcal), they’re now organized in sanctuaries and dedicated spaces by professional teams at festivals. It could be a new therapy method, with old roots and certainly answering contemporary needs.

(source: Transformational festivals: Jeet Kei Leung at TEDxVancouver https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8tDpQp6m0A)

The utopia of 70.000 designers

Surely, the presence of a structured organisation superintending Burning Man, aka Black Rock, LLC. or simply the Project, gives way to speculations over how much design is needed to build such a vision of change, and if the designers could actually be not only the superintendents, but the participants themselves. In his essay “More Than Dust: The Burning Man Festival”, PhD Fellow in Cultural Analysis Selçuk Balamir states that

[…] Burning Man is perhaps one of these early post-capitalist utopias, where design intervenes to bridge the gap between the real and the utopia. Design plays this instrumental role of shaping the world according an idea, a desire, a plan. […] In the case of Black Rock City, the leading ‘architect’ would be Larry Harvey and his team, but ultimately every participant designs. It is by enabling this creativity that Burning Man attracts more than 50,000 people every year. Harvey is confident about the Project’s future; he believes that “there is a way that all of us can be together.”

(source: Balamir, Selçuk. More Than Dust: The Burning Man Festival. Design Cultures, Reading Concepts of Intermediality. Prof. Dr. Ginette Verstraete & Dr. Sven Lütticken. Amsterdam, January 2011)

A much needed cure to the contemporary world

Upon Dr. Kelly Neff, social psychologist,

“ […] transformational festivals have the power to affect rapid change by healing us and our world in the following 8 ways: Conscious Sustainable Living, Participation in Tribal Community Ritual, Radical Inclusion, Co-Creation, Educational Mind Expansion, Experimentation, Potential for Psychological Healing, Finding Yourself.”

Creating systemic change

Another aspect of change triggered by transformational festivals is represented by the Burning Man Global Leadership Conference. The GLC shows on which extent a network of community leaders could bring the vision of BM all over the world. The main goal would be bringing to humanity the cultural change ignited by Black Rock City, giving a new shape to society that differs from conventional contemporary values.

(source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tLBQNpqHU8 )

GLC members Matthew Naimi, Rachel Klegon, and Ryan Doyle gave examples of how the GLC works at the 2015 conference. Talking about what happened to the city of Detroit when a recycling program was activated with the participation of the community, Naimi focused on how cities and society could be shaped by sustainable change:

Nothing can be considered sustainable if the system it operates in is not sustainable. And the way we’re heading, as people and as a planet, is not sustainable. Creating systemic change is the way I approach sustainability. Changing behaviors and habits to build the foundations of a more sustainable society begins with individual actions.

(source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQJvNV6zPeY )

A simple equation that shows impact

Sci-fi Author and Computer Scientist Ramez Naam spoke to the 2016 Burning Man Global Leadership Conference in San Francisco about Burning Man’s potential to impact the world, drawing an equation that shows this very concept.

“The meaning of a thing is the change that thing causes in the world, the meaning of a word is that change it causes in your brain. So what’s the meaning of the Burning Man? The meaning of this experience is what all of these people take out of that experience. I think in that respect BM has already had a dramatic, positive, impact on the world, by changing thousands of people, by allowing for change and expansion maybe more than thousands of people, maybe millions of people actually.
[…] Life can expand when your horizons expand, when someone or something shows you what’s out there over the horizon that you thought you had, life can expand based on your community, your shared experiences, life can expand off your role models.”

Therefore, change seems to happen during transformational festivals in the individual experiences of those who are part of a collectivity.

That’s why scientists have started to study such experiences, and specifically the changes that may occur in transformational festivals participants’ personal attitudes and that could be generated by a collective gathering with the same, intense focus.

Cognitive reappraisal

A psychological motivation behind the transformative experience endorsed by the Burners community could reside in the specific environment they live in for a week, and its effects on emotionality. Specifically, people could be influenced by the temporary change in social context — such as that experienced during BM — and differently regulate their emotional responses.

McRae, Heller, John and Gross studied the use of suppression and reappraisal in the social context of the weeklong Burning Man art festival […]. While expressive suppression involves inhibiting the outward display of emotion […], cognitive reappraisal involves the use of thought to change subsequent emotions […]. The researchers […] predicted reduced suppression at Burning Man because the consensual norms and values regarding emotional expression differ markedly from most Western cities. Participants are explicitly encouraged to engage in ‘‘radical self-expression.’’ […] The researchers didn’t have any a priori hypotheses for the cognitive reappraisal, for it is neither explicitly endorsed by the Burning Man Organization nor an acknowledged aspect of participation […].

Findings show that […] compared to their typical use, at Burning Man participants used suppression less frequently and reappraisal more frequently. These results are consistent with a more adaptive emotion regulation profile at Burning Man. […] What is more, the […] temporary context created at Burning Man is so radically different than most typical home environments, [the researchers] argue that it might even be appropriately considered a temporary culture.

But why do people reduce expressive suppression during BM? There could be various causes for this phenomenon.

[…] The first, and most direct mechanism, is the presence of explicit display rules that are distributed to all participants — everyone is encouraged to engage in ‘‘radical self-expression.’’ Moreover, the primary purpose of the event is that of an arts festival, which may increase the value of all types of emotional expression, resulting in the decreased use of emotion regulation strategies that reduce expression. A less obvious path to decreased suppression use may be the unique social structure that exists at Burning Man. Creative attire and a ubiquitous layer of fine dust can obscure many distinctions that exist outside of Burning Man, including class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and cultural identity. […]

On the other hand, the specific mechanisms by which reappraisal use is increased at Burning Man are less clear, […] However, many individuals use the dramatically different environment at Burning Man as an opportunity to reflect upon their lives from a more removed, distanced perspective (Hockett, 2005), a core element of reappraisal. […]

(source: Kateri McRae, S. Megan Heller, Oliver P. John, James J. Gross, Context-Dependent Emotion Regulation: Suppression and Reappraisal at the Burning Man Festival. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 33:4, 346–350. 2011)

Mental coherence — physical coherence empiric theory

The scientists’ focus on change caused by the highly significant collective experience shared by attendants of transformational festivals is also exemplified by the mental coherence — physical coherence empiric theory.

A team of scientists used two of the most inspiring moments of BM — the Man burn and the Temple burn — to experiment on the link between mind and matter. Especially, Dean Radin, Joseph Burnett, Cassandra Vieten, Tam Hunt and Arnaud Delorme wanted to verify if the rise in mental coherence generated by the focusing of the attention on the aforementioned ceremonies would have been correlated with a rise in physical coherence.

[…] The experiences reported during these events are variously described as an “energetic shift,” or as a feeling of “electricity in the air.” These experiences are reminiscent of a “disturbance in the Force” because they appear to be evoked by groups of people focusing intently on the same event, creating unusual periods of mental coherence. If the Force is a metaphorical description of a real field-like phenomenon that permeates the physical world and is intimately correlated with all living systems, then during periods of collective mental coherence one might predict that the rest of the physical world would also exhibit periods of coherence.
To explore this idea, Radin and his team monitored physical systems designed to produce maximum entropy (in the form of truly random number generators) before, during, and after the main Burning Man ceremonies. The combined results of four experiments, involving different numbers and kinds of random number generators, including novel generators of our own design, showed that the random outputs deviated from chance expectation during both the Man Burn and the Temple Burn events. This outcome was consistent with previously reported results studying proposed “consciousness fields;” it suggests that the Field may be more than an entertaining metaphor. […]

(source: Dean Radin, Joseph Burnett, Cassandra Vieten, Tam Hunt, Arnaud Delorme. Physical effects of collective attention at Burning Man 2013. October 3, 2013. http://www.noetic.org/research/projects/mindatlarge )

Cultural and political disruption

In the transformational festivals’ ecosystem, disruption leading to change can have strong cultural and political meaning, such as the case of Festival au Désert supporting Timbuktu Renaissance project in Timbuktu, Mali.

“For many people, the name Timbuktu evokes images and imaginary places at the end of the world. It is true that Timbuktu is a remote place, however, the city is far from being mythical. The Ancient City in northern Mali was for centuries a crossroads dynamics of trade, culture, and religious tolerance. The City was the scene of the first African festival of music, a priceless collection of manuscripts and one of the greatest universities in the world. Unfortunately, today, Timbuktu also reminds the destructive threat of violent extremism. Armed groups, including Jihadists linked to Al Qaeda, invaded the country and occupied Timbuktu in 2012, committing grave human rights violations, damaging holy places, burning thousands of manuscripts, banning books, sport and the music — the foundation of the country. A Coalition of forces liberated Timbuktu and hunted the terrorists, but peace remains fragile. The economy — mainly based on crafts, trade, and tourism — is in tatters. In alliance with the Brookings Institution and the Government of Mali, Timbuktu Renaissance is a platform that aims to rely on the rich culture and heritage of Mali, in particular that of Timbuktu, to promote tolerance and to start the creation of wealth and Resilience. The initiative seeks not only to boost the Mali’s creative industries such as tourism, the literature, architecture, music, film and art, but also to mobilize the investment for sustainable economic development in areas including education, agriculture, renewable energy and natural resources.”


Experimenting in freedom: an ideal ecosystem for innovation leading to radical change. Introducing the Transformational Formula.

Transformational festivals and, among the others, Burning Man, born as a free space for people experimenting with disruption and culture radical expression, became a cradle for creativity and innovation in the tech-related industries, generating worldwide media buzz and spreading change process across the mainstream audience.

With perhaps one of the most evident lessons that the current society can learn from transformational festivals, BM ended up designing an ecosystem of innovation.

The changing process within transformational festivals could be formulated in this way:


This process has been explained in other words by Fest300, the main media outlet of the festival ecosystem, and among the top influencers in the field.

[…] In fact, utopian festival experiences can be a platform for broader social change: As we are transformed by festival experiences, we in turn transform the society we inhabit. […] Festivals are social laboratories in which normal daily social rules can be tested, rewritten, or discarded temporarily.

(source: https://www.fest300.com/magazine/festivals-have-played-a-rich-political-role-throughout-history)

So, now we have a better idea of what is the change that Burning Man and transformational festivals can bring into society, and we uncovered the Transformational Formula (DISRUPTION -> INNOVATION -> CHANGE ).

Now the question is: what happened at the origin of Burning Man, back then at its pure disruptive state? And what’s the power of disruptive events? In other words: how can we guarantee change in the society and keep innovating through events such as BM?

If you’ve been following our Burning Man and Transformational Festivals publication (speaking of which: make sure to follow us and send us your thoughts, we love new ideas and new stories!) you already know that the aforementioned questions will lead to another immersion into this intriguing world.

As happened for this last article, single words — such as change — have become deeply important to direct our journey into the Transformational Festival ecosystem. The next word that we’re going to deal with is powerful yet controversial: disruption. And we’ll speak no more (for now).

This content is part of the first research in the transformational festivals field: Blaze of Inspiration. The Impact of Festivals ‘from another planet’ on our society, backed by social big data.

Alessia Clusini, Martina Faralli.