In my suitcase: dust masks and goggles, silver sequined boots and a leopard-print bodysuit, warm socks and sunscreen.
This week we’re heading to Burning Man, a temporary city that rises in a Nevada desert with about 60,000 residents bringing art and music – and lots of water – to an inhospitable chunk of dust known as the playa.
I’ve never been to Burning Man and as a newbie I’ve been especially interested in people’s responses to our plans. They range from the warm welcomes of long-time burners to the quizzical “what’s that?” Many seem to fall in between, people who’ve heard of this annual summer event and think it’s something like a later-day Woodstock, a big party loaded with nudity and drugs.
I won’t be surprised if I encounter some of that, but what intrigued me enough to enter this year’s controversial ticket lottery and pitch a freelance story to alumni website Michigan Today was something more complex.
Burning Man takes place in a hot, dusty desert miles from the nearest small town – it’s off the grid in more than one sense, with no electricity or running water, no cell service, and no corner store waiting to serve you.
The event is based on a notion of radical self-reliance. If you want or need something for the week, you bring it, including food and water, as commerce is expressly forbidden.
Burning Man makes two small exceptions to the ban on sales: ice and coffee. It amuses me that these two items are considered important enough to survival that they get special dispensation.
But this isn’t like my Girl Scout days roasting hot dogs and s’mores over a campfire, because a central premise of Burning Man is the gift economy. Some people plan all year for what they will share with their fellow campers.
Hundreds of registered art installations will mix in with the camps, plus many more unlisted, along with projects like the one we supported on Kickstarter: Black Rock French Quarter. Among other generous acts, they recruit chefs and waiters and sommeliers to gift multi-course dinners to people they see making the playa a better place.
In a country where we are constantly marketed to and sold to, I’m curious to experience an intentional community where people put their effort into what they can give you instead of what they can get from you.
We went to a Burning Man happy hour in Manhattan recently and talked to a guy who described Burning Man as a place where many of life’s usual rules don’t apply – it’s U.S. soil so laws still reach to the playa, but the cultural restrictions that might stifle you aren’t there. Costumes are such a part of the radical self expression experience that the 2012 survival guide explicitly advises: don’t be a “participation snob.” Just because someone isn’t costumed or visibly participating doesn’t mean they aren’t contributing in a less obvious way.
This experienced burner said that freedom is great for some people, while others realize it’s too much for them. It’s too weird, too scary.
At the moment, I’m more scared by warnings that this could be the dustiest year in memory, but I’ll know more about how scary the rest of Burning Man is in a few days.
Our community’s ethos is built on the values reflected in the 10 Principles. “Burning Man” is understood not as an event, but as referring to a way of life lived consistently with these 10 Principles. They are meant to be taken as a whole, as a set of commonly understood values that have arisen out of the history of the Burning Man experience.
Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Gifting: 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.
Decommodification: 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.
Radical Self-reliance: Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources. Radical Self-expression: Radical self-expression 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.
Communal Effort: 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.
Civic Responsibility: 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.
Leaving No Trace: 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 a better state than when we found them.
Participation: 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.
Immediacy: 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.