2012 Burning Man
A Burning Man participant toasts the sunrise with a bottle of champagne at the 2013 Burning Man arts and music festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada
2012 Burning Man
Leaving Black Rock CIty in the Dust #longexposurethursday
A Burning Man Survival Guide for Creatives
The saying goes that trying to explain Burning Man to someone who has never experienced it before is like trying to describe a rainbow to a blind man. A Burner Man virgin trying to imagine what it is actually like probably isn’t too far from someone trying to picture a color that doesn’t exist. Burning Man exceeds all categories and descriptions. This is no typical festival. It’s a weird, beautiful and creative life force of its own, a seven day experiment in radical self-expression and community building, which takes place in the middle of the vast and hostile desert landscape that is Black Rock City, Nevada. An entire community of over 10,000 participants (at Burning Man, you don’t attend, you participate) is built upon empty desert and at the end of the seventh day, not a trace is left behind. Outsider stereotypes of a “hippie festival” or “giant orgy” where “nobody showers” and “everyone is on drugs”–although the burning man experience for some–is missing the point. Burning Man is built upon the work of established creatives and features some of the most impressive examples of interactive art-technology being made today. During the day, the Playa–as it affectionately called–looks like a surreal dreamscape conjured up by the mad minds of Dalí or Magritte. On a creative level, Burning Man is one of the trippiest art shows out there. It has evolved into such a cultural phenomenon that versions of the original are popping up all over the world from South Africa’s AfrikaBurn to Israel’s Midburn and Brazil’s Rio Ramaza.
“Burning Man – At night, the playa is transformed into a glowing, pulsating landscape of Dionysian proportions. The sun gives way to darkness and the playa is reborn into an electric-koolaid carnival come alive by the technicolored glow of thousands of swirling neon lights.”
You don’t need to drop acid to feel like you’re tripping while looking up at these size defying surrealist, poetic, and outright bizarre creations. Radical self-expression is one of the founding philosophies of Burning Man and results in halloween-on-steroids-levels of costumery. Burners of all ages are dressed up as everything from indians, drag queens, and aliens to nude enthusiasts and steam punk pirates who wander the dessert. They ride around on highly decorated bicycles covered in christmas lights or tech-meets-art mobile sculptures lovingly called “Mutant Mobiles” to get around between the camp sights and interactive art installations, all of which are periodically enveloped in clouds of red dust, billowing up during desert storms.
At night, the playa is transformed into a glowing, pulsating landscape of Dionysian proportions. Night is when the real party begins. The sun gives way to darkness and the playa is reborn into an electric-koolaid carnival come alive by the technicolored glow of thousands of swirling neon lights. The contra-jour installations of the daytime light up with color against the pitch black desert as the freaks are made freakier by the hypnotic sounds of electronic music and drum beats. At the center of the crop-circle camp ground is a massive forty foot wooden construction called The Man, a glorified stick figure which is the symbol of the festival. Throughout the week the burners imprint their memories onto the side of the Man’s temple, and on the last night it is set ablaze in a massive bonfire celebration. Burning Man is a Mecca of creativity where collaboration, community, and “radical inclusion” are among its founding philosophies.
Burning Man now hosts upwards of 70,000 participants and is one of the most prolific festivals in the world, so where did this all begin? On a beach at night with a bunch of friends engaging in a purely spontaneous act. On June 21st, 1986 Larry Harvey and a group of friends, revered today as Burner gods decided to build a “man” out of wood and set it on fire on a beach in San Francisco. It was a spontaneous act considered one of the earliest forms of radical self-expression. No permission was asked, it was a collaborative effort in the sake of friendship and creativity. The next year, the ritual was repeated and more people came. As the participants grew year after year, the ceremony moved from the beach to the dessert in Black Rock City Nevada where it expanded and transformed into the seven day multi-sensory festival of creativity, art, community and self-expression that it is today.
10 commandments of Burning Man
Radical Inclusion: Everyone is welcome and anyone can be a part of Burning Man.
Gifting: Money has no power on the Playa. Burning Man is a gift-giving community that relies entirely on strangers giving other strangers fantastical gifts while expecting nothing in return [Those guys giving out free snow cones and margaritas in the middle of the desert? They’re doing it for the pure pleasure of keeping you hydrated and happy.]
Radical Self-Reliance: Rely on yourself and discover your inner resources. [Although not explicitly said, this principle also extends to relying on yourself to not die during a week in the desert].
Decommodification: Burning Man is an escape from the ad and marketing saturated world outside the Playa. In upholding the principle of Gifting, Burning Man seeks to create a social environment free of advertising, monetary transactions and commercial sponsorships. [Logos and Red Bull trucks have no place on the Playa].
Radical Self-Expression: Be your ultimate self. This comes from the gifts within the individual whose content can manifest as any form of creative expression. This expression is offered as a gift to others and the rights of both sides must be respected. [Be the biggest freak and creative that you are but don’t cross the line].
Communal Effort: The community on the Playa is built upon collaboration and the support and protection of social networks, works of art, and any methods of communication which support such interactions.
Leave No Trace: Nothing is dropped on the Playa floor, not even a cigarette bud. At the end of the week, not a trace of the weeklong night and day celebration is left behind.
Civic Responsibility: Those who organize events and works of art should assume responsibility for the safety and welfare of their participants. [If you build a giant gerbil wheel mutant mobile that spits fire balls, make sure that no one goes up in flames].
Participation: There are attendees and then there are participants. The latter’s Burning Man experience will by far surpass that of the former.
Immediacy: Perhaps the most important principle, immediacy calls for breaking down barriers both between and within us, recognizing our inner selves and the reality of others, and upholding our contact with the natural world which exceeds all human power.
Burning Man for Creatives
Everyone is a Creative at Burning Man. Anyone can create art, which is defined on the Playa by interactivity. Art is not limited to “artists,” specialists, or institutions. Creativity and collaboration is part of everyday life at Burning Man, in fact, it practically defines it. Art is meant to be interacted with–seen, touched, and played with–to create both intimate and shared experiences which transcend the limitations of any gallery or museum space. Burning Man’s associated organization, the Black Rock Art Foundation supports interactive art outside of the event, the result of which has been to support untrained artists to venture outside of their respective fields to engage in creativity. On the Playa, creatives are not restricted by the normal confines set by the art world. They are free from curators, collectors and galleries; free to disregard impressing critics or buyers and to instead create purely for the sake of others. Burning Man is the art world free from money. As much as it is a defiance of the “real world” and what is “normal,” Burning Man is also a rebellion against art world standards. It has given birth to a new form of art, one based in the principles of interaction and participation created by the hands of both trained and untrained artists alike.
“The creation of art on the Playa is an all inclusive act of self-expression and collaboration whose value is not assessed by critics, money or industry standards but by the experience of its participants.”
Among the nearly 300 officially recognized artworks that fill the Playa are massive architectural constructions, temples and installations that defy imagination. Burning Man has become a testing ground and outdoor museum exhibition space for artist collaborators seeking engaged audiences. Groups of creatives come together and spend all year creating and preparing for the upcoming Burning Man, dreaming up and executing aw-inspiring creations that will be deconstructed come the end of the festival. Some of the festival’s most memorable creations from past years include: Marco Cochrane’s Truth is Beauty (2010), a forty foot high, sculpture rendered in steel of a women gracefully stretching her arms up to the heavens in a celebration of feminine beauty and power. The Temple of Stars (2004) by David Best and the Temple Crew spanned over a quarter of a mile across the Playa. The 100 ft temple inspired by Japanese sculptural landscapes was composed of smaller temple structures and gardens connected by a system of bridge pathways and was a place for burners to gather, rest, and reflect. The Uchronian architectural installation built by Belgian artists Jan Kriekels, Arne Quinze, Maurice Engelen, and the Urchonia Crew was a massive cage structure splaying shadows onto the dessert floor and meant to embody the creators’ vision of Utopia. Robert Bose’s minimalist installation Balloon Chain (2012), a line of balloons strung together ascending into the sky, floating above the playa with a tranquility to rival the firebreathing, animated creations on the cracked desert floor below. Michael Christian’s Key Note (2009), a towering sculpture made entirely of locks of a man dragging a key behind him. The artist explains the man is searching for another key, the right key as a metaphor for life. Not excluding a Steampunk Treehouse (2007) by Sean Orlando; Pepe OIzan’s The Dreamer (2005), a massive cranium half-submerged by the sand; Rebelah Waites’s decaying church propped up on its side like a mouse trap, cheekily entitled Church Trap (2013); and Duane Flatmo’s mechanical kinetic flame-throwing octopus sculpture El Pulpo (2011-2013).
As soon as one Burning Man ends, preparation for the following year begins. The cycle repeats itself. Art is built up and taken down, but the memories they create live on and it is here wherein the true value of art resides. The creation of art on the Playa is an all inclusive act of self-expression and collaboration whose value is not assessed by critics, money or industry standards but by the experience of its participants.
Burning Man isn’t all love and sunshine. It’s also about surviving an entire week in one of the country’s harshest desert climates ripe with dust storms, intense heat, and cold nights, all of which require preparation. But not to worry, if you fail, there are teams of medics (and psychiatrists) on hand for your saving. So how does one not succumb to an unpleasant fate at Burning Man? On a most basic level, bring water–a lot–and food, sun screen and sun-protection, an adequate shelter and whatever camping amenities your maintenance level may require from portable stoves, generators, LED lights to full out RVs. So then what keeps burners in that famous smiley state of euphoric enjoyment amid conditions that would scare off most normal people? The constant actualization of art and the unconditional inclusion and expression of a creative community. But here are few essential tips on how to make your Burning Man experience all that it can be:
– Bring a Bike. Decorate it. Light it up. Lock it down. When the desert sun is blasting down at the heat of the day, you’re motivation to visit that water spraying elephant installation across the Playa will be greatly decreased if you have to go by foot.
– Dress up. Bring costume. Under the principle of radical self-expression, are you fulfilling your expressive potential? This is probably the only place on earth you can run around naked covered in purple glitter or dressed as steam-punk indian space creature and no one will look twice so embrace it.
– Dust. It will get everywhere. Dust storms and twisters of this superfine alkaline dust will emerge out of no where obscuring everything in sight. It will cover every inch of your body and hair. Cover the air ducts and cracks of your car. And post-Burning Man, wash your car and clean your electronics/clothes immediately as this type of dust can corrode metals and ruin fabrics. Bring goggles, a bandana to cover your mouth, virtually anything you think you might need to make sporadic dust twister occurrences the positive experience it should be on the Playa.
– Survive. Pack a campsite with enough food, protection, water so you can make it the week without ending up in Center Camp hooked up to a gatorade IV drip.
– Gift. Offer something to the community. Whether it be an interactive work of art, any form of creative expression, actual gifts, helping others or sharing knowledge, Burning Man is built upon interactive creativity and your experience will be all the more enhanced with this in mind.
Burning Man Vocabulary
Default-Life: The Real-World
Playa: That cracked dessert floor that is to be your home for the next week
Home: Burning Man
Black Rock City: The temporary city in Nevada where the Burning Man community is built.
Ancestors/Dust Devils: The massive dust-tornados that appear out of now where and sweep across the Playa.
Mutant Mobiles: The tripped out vehicles–such as dragons or ships–that move across the Playa.
Leave Nothing Behind: Leave the Playa actually as it was before the event. Don’t you dare think of tossing that wrapper onto the ground.
Black Rock Beach: The San Francisco beach where the first Man was burned.
Burning Man Schock: The overwhelming happiness and euphoria that one experiences at Burning Man after leaving the real world.
The Man: The massive sculpture at the center of the Playa which is burned on the last night.
Gifting: One of the 10 principles of Burning Man. The idea of giving a gift, either material or not, to another person without expecting anything in return.
The After Burn
The sky piercing and night illuminating works of art erected onto the Playa are so awe-inspiring and magical that they could easily be mistaken as hallucinations that defy most imaginations. But Creativity at Burning Man is not limited to the works of art, it pervades everything on the Playa, every outlandish costume, every bond, every interaction and every moment of radical self-expression. Creatives engage with the arts and use their creativity as a way to express themselves. Burning Man is a celebration of life and creativity by Creatives. If someone were to ask what Burning Man is really like, the only truly adequate response would be to say, you have to experience it to understand. Words fail to describe the experience of leaving behind the rest of the world to join a temporary city of otherworldly works of art with tens of thousands of creatives engaging in all forms of self-expression, radical inclusion, decommodification, gifting, collaboration and creativity. In a way Burning Man is a metaphor for the beauty and creativity of life. After the Man is burned, the temples deconstructed and the participants return to their default-lives, the experience and the spirit of creativity which Burning Man fosters lives on while the Playa stands empty, waiting for its Burners to return again with new fantastical expressions of self and art.
Photography copyright: Trey Ratcliff – Julian Walter – We Sleep in tents