Burning Man Isn’t

Posted: September 25, 2010 in the burn

Ever since I got back from Burning Man — and before I went — people have been asking me what Burning Man is.

I attempted to discover this for myself prior to leaving. I read blogs and articles on the subject in an attempt to prepare myself for the experience.

A great deal of what I read was written by people who’d never been to the actual event. One man wrote a vitriolic article about how slutty women went to Burning Man specifically to have unprotected sex with dread-wearing Trustafarians from Germany. A sex columnist wrote about how casual sex at Burning Man was incredibly likely to lead to sexually-transmitted infections. She polished off her missive with the line, “I have a perfect record of attendance at Burning Man: 0”.

I noticed a pattern developing, even before I set foot on the playa: for most people, making up their minds about Burning Man is simple. First, you decide (based on heresay) what you don’t like about Burning Man. Then, you decide the thing you don’t like is *all* that exists at Burning Man. Then, you write about it.

Unfortunately, this pattern is all too common with other subjects, as well. We hear a close friend talking about something — a movie, or a musical act, or a country, or a religion, and we decide, based on what little we’ve heard, that we don’t like it.  Sometimes we even let them decide for us — “Would I like it?” Then our friend, who knows us so well and is always looking out for our best interests, tells us what we like or dislike. Paternalism gone wild.

I know we do this partly as a cognitive shortcut, because it saves us the time and energy we’d have to expend testing every experience — and that’s fine so long as we’re talking simple experiences, like the taste of carrots or the feel of wool socks. Burning Man is not a simple experience.

I was at a conference with a co-worker this Thursday, trying to explain to her what Burning Man was (she’s never heard of it). We were sitting at a table with 5 other co-workers, and as I was trying to explain the event to her, they were telling her simple things, like “It’s a giant drug-fuelled rave.” I asked them if they’d ever been, and the answer was inevitably, “No, but I have a lot of close friends who go.”

Burning Man is not something you can learn about through your friends. The experience is not consistent from year to year, or day to day, or person to person. My friends I camped with had entirely different experiences than I did. If I found a cool event or exhibit in the morning, and told my friends about it at noon, I would hear that evening that the cool thing I’d found was no longer around in the afternoon. Such is the nature of impermanence at the event.

The funny thing is, people who reduce Burning Man to a drug-fuelled rave, or a giant hook-up party, aren’t totally wrong. If you want a drug-fuelled rave, you can find one at Burning Man. If you want a random hookup, you can find that too. If you want an STI, you can probably contract one, but it might take a bit more doing — one of my friends asked a girl to kiss him, only to have her refuse because she had an open herpes sore. This admission earned her such respect and gratitude from our group that instead of a kiss, she got a dedicated group hug from three attractive guys, and all sorts of verbal praise as to the beauty of her spirit and the grandeur of her integrity.

Back to my colleague. The best description I was able to give her, and my favorite description of what Burning Man is, follows: Burning Man is an arts and culture event.

Period.  End of line. No further elaboration is necessary. Burning Man is about art, it is about culture, and it is an event. Trying to define it further is a descent into folly, because of how heterogenous it is (which has not stopped it from writing my own laundry-list on the subject).

(It is also worth highlighting that Burning Man is an event, in the sense that it is limited in time, and not a continuous reality — which is part of why I want to create a longer-lasting community. I value the temporality and impermanence Burning Man honors, and I accept how that adds a special magic to the proceedings. What I want to recreate on a more permanent basis are the elements of the event that lend themselves to peace, happiness and community, over the long term, although even the term “long term” is laughable when used in the context of human time scales. If I built a city that stood for 1,000 years, it would  still be an evolutionary eye blink on a geological or interstellar time scale. All permanence achieved by human efforts is only temporary.)

Those who believe they can define Burning Man, without having first submitted to the experience, are showing arrogance and judgment in excess. Yes, Burning Man has drugs. Yes, there is free love. Yes, there is loud music, and amazing art, and long hair and unwashed bodies and fireworks and burning things and explosions and blinking lights and free liquor.

Burning Man is a rave, a party, based on hedonism, spiritual; it is an ephemeral, beautiful, powerful, moving and invisible city. Burning Man is all these things and more, and because of this, if anyone tries to tell you the single thing that Burning Man is, you can feel free to tell them that they’re wrong; because no matter what that single thing is, Because Burning Man isn’t.

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