Burning Man 2019 - A Social Phenomenon

My fascination with culture building has kept me a devoted fan of the popular reality TV show, Survivor. When I learned that my wonderful 24 year-old grandson, Jake, had managed to purchase a ticket to the famous Burning Man event this year I was enthralled. I could hardly wait to hear all about it. Three days after his return, we met for lunch. Seated comfortably in a corner booth at The Sun Dried Tomato, I plied him with questions about his recent nine-day-long sojourn into that world held at "Black Rock City, Nevada."

Jake Enjoying the Desert

As a social scientist and world traveler, I have been blessed to have visited and studied the Wonders of the World as well as many of humanities' great works of art. I have been fortunate to create a life where this is possible, however my travels have shown me little comparable to Jake's adventure.
I can barely visualize a "city" of 70,000 inhabitants which rises up from nothing in the bleakest of deserts only to be burned down or physically removed nine days later. Truly, I can't imagine. In my world we would preserve the art and turn it into a World Heritage Site.

Folly - Wooden City

I had done my homework before I met with Jake. I understood that Larry Harvey had founded this phenomenon thirty years ago when he gathered his friends for a bonfire at the beach near San Francisco, burned an effigy, and celebrated the Summer Solstice while trying to get over a bad break-up. As the event grew and was moved from the beach to the desert, Harvey had a vision. He saw the event as a "shared intention to restore community and creative expression." 
I knew that Burning Man had grown to become a world-wide social phenomenon attracting "Burners" to play and create in the arid, dust blown Playa and Black Rock Desert, one hundred miles north of Reno each year. As Jake opened the photos on his phone and began to describe the many roving "art cars" and the "light art," and the massive temporary art exhibits, I felt lightheaded from the thrill of it all. Even the "Burners" themselves are part of the scene with their costumes and makeup. His photos showed me lots of fur, jewelry, tutus, masks, and goggles. I knew there was nudity. (My grandson did not have such photos in his collection, however he knew that I had come to my majority during the turbulent 60's, The Age of Aquarius, and was pretty immune to certain aspects of communal living). He described a party he attended on a big 747 airplane which was rolled onto the sandy desert and gutted. It became a dance hall with portions of the top of the plane removed so participants could enjoy the view of the "city" which follows an organized grid pattern with the camps erected along designated blocks.
Airplane Converted to Dance Hall
A favorite photo was of an art car which was a lit-up sailing ship with three masts, mounted upon a truck chassis. I could image how majestic it must have appeared "sailing" across the dark desert at night. I loved the photos of the "Folly" which is a life-sized multi story "town" made of wood. An important piece was a giant wooden birthday cake upon which stood the 40 foot tall Burning Man effigy. Further reading taught me that the "soul of Black Rock City has always resided within the structures, the artists and the builders." Fifty years ago, Woodstock was built on its music. Twenty years later, Burning Man, which has persevered for thirty years, is built on its art. The burning of the "man" marks the culmination of the celebration.

The Art Car Ship "Sailing" Past

The communication teacher in me is interested in the development of cultures. I got a kick out of the event's tribal greeting. Instead of a handshake, there is a hug; instead of hello, during the first days of the gathering, it was "Welcome Home." As Jake recited the tenets of the gathering I could not help but flash back on recent television accounts of the 1969 crowd of a half million at Woodstock. Woodstock was a cultural flashpoint. I thought of its ethos of peace, and love against the protests of the Viet Nam War; I also recalled the massive mounds of debris left in its wake.

This is the Burning Man Code:
Radical Inclusion - anyone may be a part of Burning Man
Gifting - Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving
Decommodification - (Immunity from market dependency)
Radical Self Reliance
Radical Self-expression
Communal Effort
Civic Responsibility
Leaving No Trace

The "city" is guided by its own laws and mores. Jake explained that safety and consent are of key importance and there was a visible police presence. Money is not allowed, only gift giving. (Cash is only allowed for the purchase of ice and coffee). Brand names are taped over or marked out. One of Jake's favorite activities was riding his bike on the open desert and stumbling upon pieces of art. Another interesting moment was walking into a boutique and finding a piece of clothing he liked, and being invited to take it. No charge, gift giving being the cultural norm.

Giant Birthday Cake with Burning Man - Later Burned Down.
Jake smiled as he explained the feeling of strolling into the playa (the sandy dry lake bed a bit away from the city) in the middle of the night to think; to appreciate the beauty and darkness of the desert, and the enormity of living in a social experiment where one is free from ordinary social constraints. Always careful, he assured me that he was safe in the dark. He wore lights on his clothing as mobile art pieces were often moving past as well as bicycles.

My guess is that Burning Man will continue to grow, but as the rich and famous want in on the action, hiring folk to set up and tear down their camps, rolling-in expensive RV's and personal chefs, it will change. For now, much of the community building, art installations, and personal expressions remain somewhat true to Larry Harvey's vision.

Dust Storm

A quick Instagram review showed video snippets of the scenes. I encourage you to explore the event online. I know from studying world history that in ancient times there were similar communal rituals such as those centered at the Winter Solstice. Events, like Stonehenge, where humans gathered eons ago to celebrate life are not new, but we know so little about them, while this event is alive and growing during our time. I find it magical and exciting!

As we finished up our lunch and Jake prepared to go back to the "real" world of work, I knew that I would not be attending Burning Man for many reasons including the heat and sand, however, through the luxury of narrative and photos, I am able to glean a sense of the adventure without the dust storms or high temperatures. I've had a vicarious thrill through my grandson's special experience. Surely this wild city is in a class of its own, far different from my adventures around the world, but most importantly, this has given me something precious which my young man can eagerly share with his very fascinated grandmother. I feel lucky.

I love hearing what you think. My best, donna