I wanted to experience it myself. No matter how many things I’d heard and read, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole picture. Wasn’t willing to listen to that little voice of judgment, and honestly, that cowardice that whispered:
“there’s no way you’ll survive out there.
the sun, the dust, the port-a-potties, and no showers for a week.
it’s gonna be seeped in privileged, extravagant, techie bro-ttitude …
it’ll be too much.
all of it will make you feel gross inside and out…”
for the last few years these murmurings stifled the pangs of curiosity I’ve been having about it.
But I didn’t want to care what other people said. I don’t hate on something until I understand what it is, and I only care or feel like I have the place to critique a thing until I do.
the day I was really convinced was when I was getting lunch with an old close friend of mine, Martina. I’m notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people so I didn’t even know that she’d gone. This person, one of my favorite people, was someone I didn’t really expect to go to a huge neo-hippie festival in the middle of the desert. It caught me off guard. As I listened to her talk about it, I kept prodding her with questions. She described things she experienced that seems so otherworldly, so unexpected, like a wacky sci-fi world. It suddenly sounded so fucking cool. If she was into it this much, the odds were I would be too.
When it started to become time to make the commitment, I started dating a guy who’d been going for the past several years. he sealed it for me. how could I not try at this point, when so many people, my people, were into it? I wanted to know if I could do it and survive. I wanted to know what the big deal was.
so, I decided to go to Burning Man.
It starts months and months before. At the time it seems like an ungodly amount of preparation, but looking back at it it’s really part of the experience. for your first time, the thing you need to focus on (and quite honestly, all you can really handle) is to figure out how to go and how to survive. Everyone warns you about the excruciating heat, the suffocating dust storms, and the unforgivingly cold, dark nights. I read almost every discussion board and took every random piece of advice I got from friends and strangers about what I needed for the trip. I hadn’t gone on a real camping trip in ages so I was pretty insecure about my outdoor survival skills.
Then there was the planning you need to do if you’re in a camp. I ended up joining Martina’s, which consisted of friends or friends-of-friends of the people who camped together the previous year. We were 60 people, from around the world, most of whom were complete strangers to one another. The process of organizing everything for this many people across 8+ time zones was a feat in itself. We had to plan our food, water, grey water disposal system, shade structure, seating area, signage, etc. etc. I wanted to do everything I could to contribute and be helpful…but I’ll be totally honest and say that I also did it too because I was worried things wouldn’t get done.
In the end, my camp came together remarkably well. It was satisfying to be able to rely on a bunch of total strangers. Everyone was expected to contribute and work collaboratively to build what became our home for that week. pretty much everyone pulled through where it mattered. I was proud that we all created a way that we could all live together on a square plot of dry hard dust, and that we managed to not be a total mess.
In some ways, I guess I should’ve expected this. Burning Man isn’t a place for people who just talk about doing things. It doesn’t matter what you say or plan to do, all that matters is that you did it. That goes for anything you bring to the Playa, to what you end up doing when you’re there. It’s an opportunity to flex cooperative abilities and your giving abilities. At the same time you’re challenged in your willingness to be creative and open to new opportunities, you need to be socially and environmentally aware.
It’s all held together by some basic, intuitively sensible rules. Leave no trace and pick up any Matter Out Of Place. Respect each other’s boundaries. Give and receive whatever you can. You respect these rules because they’re not arbitrary. They’re designed out of utility for the security and happiness of the people who choose to be there. In this way they’re freeing, not inhibiting. These basic rules reflect the event’s slow evolution. I was told that they were the result of lessons learned from tragic accidents and the inevitable necessity for more structure as the city grew and grew each year.
And as it grew, it seems that it became more and more like the world people came there to escape.
That ability to escape is really only something privileged people can do. You need to have the money to spend, and the ability to get time off to disconnect from your job and your other responsibilities. But even then, why Burning Man? Why not spend the time and the resources to go on a relaxing vacation? Why not go into the mountains, surround yourself with thick rustling trees or sprawl out next to some cool peaceful beach?
it’s because the challenge of it’s thrilling. It’s novel to be part of something so big and cooperative. There are few places in this world that invite you to participate and engage in the creation of a shared experience. It forces you to push your comfort zones in ways you never would’ve conceived.
but, as nothing really is, it’s not removed from the real world. Or what Burners call the “default world,” and the very real inequalities in power, influence, and money.
You see it all around. there’s the turnkey camps, where people pay others to set up a camp for them, sometimes coming as a package with expensive chefs, butlers, and the like. Apparently, some of them compose their camps so no one can walk through their whole set up. I saw small clans of segways zoom past me. Sometimes I noticed art cars or camps with older white men sitting at a throne or up high, higher than anyone else, flanked by what I can only imagine to be paid models and dancers in coordinated burner-esque outfits.
It’s gross, for sure, but I was also fascinated by how wealth was manifested there. I guess the point of being in one of those enclosed, turnkey camps is that you get to be all cushy and comfortable while experiencing the dense sensory barrage that unfolds in the desert.
but to me what that shows is two different things:
either, these people are just cowards who don’t think they could handle the harsh environment of the Playa like most do, or they’re just unable to be self-sufficient or work with others well enough to do it themselves. A huge part of being out there is what you do for survival, whether you do it by yourself or with a group. if you’re completely unprepared there are some ways for you to rely on others to get by. But the whole deal is that you think about the basic needs you have, and make sure you take them with you. in theory, the rest of it is about giving and sharing.
What those turnkey camps signify is how its inhabitants don’t know how to be self-reliant. If they do, it’s silly that they’re coming to an event in which that is one of its core principles, and instead, choose to be observers, non-participants. What’s gross about it isn’t that it seems unfair that they “get” to have those set ups, it’s that they’re exploiting the cooperative nature of the Burning Man experience and using it as a backdrop for the cushy vacation they could really have anywhere else.
“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.“
In the default world you can never ignore the existence and power that money quantifies and signifies.
one goal out there is to try to suspend its grip on our lives, for just a few days. thousands go to play this game of make believe.
people go to be extravagant in their own way. you can’t ignore the privilege, the wealth, because you can’t go unless the time, the resources, the ability, AND the desire for relentless, expressive, experimental energy that’s all been taken to its absurd extreme. everyone who goes is privileged in this way. the layers of pre-existing, institutionalized power inequities always give certain people access to more things, and out there, to more of those extremes. but to me, it seems like the people who choose to drag their privilege out there with them lose out from actually understanding the point of burning man. i’d imagine it’s hard to experience the raw, unpredictable intimacy of a place where respect and trust comes from being able to be happy to give as much as you are happy to receive. you can’t be as grateful for those surprise gifts if you isolate yourself and bring too much comfort out there with you.
So. I’m glad I got to go and see what it’s like when people are free to question all previous spoken and unspoken rules….how you’re supposed to dress, speak, act, relax, connect, feel, and express to others, it’s all thrown out the window and we’re all dared to rebuild it from scratch. I truly believe it could do more to challenge our default norms, especially our socio-political ones. Since no one in particular is in charge of that, I’m thinking of doing it myself somehow.