Thoughts from my first time at Burning Man // @burningman



I hardly know where to begin when prompted to explain what the journey to the Burning Man festival has given me in terms of new thoughts, new perspectives and new energies. Still, I would like to try to capture my thoughts at this point right after the experience - for future reference and as a way of forcing myself to condense a myriad of random thoughts into something a little more coherent and tangible to share with people around me, who are - like I was before - curious to know what the Burning Man phenomenon is all about.

More specifically I want to put words on to not only the professional inspiration but also the thoughts that the festival brought forward on a more personal level. That is what this post is an attempt to do and these are the thoughts I have taken with me: The things that have been etched into my consciousness and that stand out after the dust (quite literally) has fallen.

Incredible film by WallabyWay that encapsulates Burning Man perfectly in just 5 minutes (I encourage you to watch it in full length before continuing).

Inspiration abundance - and a feeling
First, let me center on the creative inspiration that you are overwhelmed with after just a few hours at Burning Man. One thing is the inspiration coming from what is actually physically at Burning Man; the visual impressions, people's costumes, the sheer scale of the event and the autonomous character of the impressive art production taking place, which as far as I know is not found on a similar level anywhere else on the planet. Seeing these things makes you want to drop everything in your hands and simply start joining, building, creating.
But the real inspiration actually lie on the interpersonal level: What is happening to and among the burners (official term for the participants); that thing that the Burning Man organizers continually manage to install, or rather activate, in the 55,000 people participating. A certain feeling which is hard to explain, a certain experience which is collective, but above all individual.
I am not a spiritual person per se, but I can feel that the experience has a magnitude that most certainly has affected me on a personal level. I feel a little changed somehow, I feel enlightened.


Photo by Michael Holden CC BY-NC

Photo by Duncan Rawlinson CC BY-NC

A sense of togetherness and belonging
First and foremost I experienced that burners (me too as a newbie) have a sense of togetherness that is not only incredibly unique when considering the size of the population (as event organizer I know how difficult it is to affect that many people, no less trying to get them to understanding values), but also because that sense plants itself immediately in the single individual. Somehow it can be compared to a computer network where all the nodes are not only compatible, but actually seeking interaction and contact with each other. The way the Burning Man organizers have managed to maintain that feeling and culture while scaling up from a small group on the beach in San Francisco 30 years ago into the desert today - in what is practically a global event with over 50,000 people - is almost unfathomable.

Collective motivation to contribute
I am also fascinated by the motivation I felt inside as well as saw around me in fellow burners; in part the motivation to abide the principles of the festival (the 10 basic principles including the 'leave not trace'-spirit, which I'll come back to below), but much more significantly the motivation to contribute to the festival rather than just enjoy and consume. By contribute I am referring partly to the gift and sharing culture that is the very basis of the festival (no vending or money allowed except for a few ice and coffee outlets), but also in general contributing by making actively sure that everyone around you feel well, feel welcome and feel included. I think this contrasts other large congregations of people at events in general around the world (such as conventional music festivals for instance), where people pretty much think only about their own well-being - and act accordingly. I guess you can say that the reason people attend Burning Man is pretty much opposite of the reasons for attending other festivals and large scale events where you simply buy a ticket to serve your own aspirations.
That such a culture can exist in such a large body of people (and global community) is nothing less than astonishing to experience.

The burning of the man - by mr. nightshade CC BY-NC-ND

Photo by Michael Holden CC BY-NC-ND

Photo by Michael Holden CC BY-NC-ND

Photo by mr. nightshade CC BY-NC-ND

Removal of facade
Next I want to highlight the effects of what I would like to call the "removal of facade" that happens automatically and subliminally at Burning Man from the minute you step onto the playa (the desert). What happens is that all the reservations we subconsciously apply to ourselves when meeting other people are automatically taken away. What do I mean by that? Well, things like vanity ("How do I look?"), scarcity of resources ("What can I afford?"), implicit self indulgence ("Me first") and "digital multi-presence" (upkeeping your digital persona on your phone/computer - as well as our constant pondering if there are places, people or events more interesting than where I am at right now that I should pay attention to).
When you and everyone around you are equally dirty and shabby (away goes the vanity), are equally poor/rich (money has no applicability at Burning Man), looks to give instead of to receive (goodbye self-indulgence) and there is no cell phone coverage or wifi (no distractions, no digital upkeep, no interruptions - you can only engage in those people around you) - then a fantastic, unique and (for those who haven't been there) almost unexplainable atmosphere appears.
I think that the combination of these things brings forward a natural willingness to be is more open, honest, spontaneous and much less self-centered. Somehow it brings people closer to the social ideal that we all carry within ourselves, but rarely let out in full because we maintain a facade that is almost impossible to put away because it is an integrated part of our basic mental programming - to the extent that we are unaware of it's existence. Until we try what it's like when it's not there.

Action-oriented community spirit
I work daily with driving forward a volunteer community and therefore I was thoroughly impressed with the action-oriented community spirit found at Burning Man. Here you attend to participate, not be a spectator. It seems that pretty much everyone falls into this role quite naturally and that tells me that this is actually what most people generally want in life: To participate and take action for a common good. But in order to activate this somewhat latent character in people you have to press the right button. In other words: Action-oriented community spirit appeals to a lot of people, but often they are unaware of this themselves - and remain in self indulgent patterns.
We have similar community principles in Platform4 (the volunteer creative hub I am part of in Denmark), only on much smaller scale. Right from the start when we founded the place we discussed that in order to build a community we would need to activate and include newcomers in a way that they find compelling based on their own interests and values. If you manage to do that you will find resources and willingness in people that are incredible. We often refer to this ideology - being a volunteer based hub, venue and digital art house - as "removing the barrier between the stage and audience area" in order to stimulate audience members into becoming creative initiative-takers themselves. And it works!
Burning Man is light years ahead and above us in this area, but seeing how the community culture is shaped in Burning Man affirmed my belief in this area. People want to participate, to create. You simply have to figure out how to press the right button - which the Burning Man organizers have managed to do on a magnificent scale.

Photo by mr. nightshade CC BY-NC-ND

Black Rock City aerial tour 2012 by ExperimentalAirlines

Burning Man From Above from Glenn McLelland on Vimeo.

Leave no trace
This leads me to the leave-no-trace philosophy which basically inspires people to clean up after themselves in real-time. No waste object (called MOOP - Matter Out Of Place), no matter how small, may ever hit the playa. You bring with you to Burning Man everything you need to survive in a week (that is what is referred to as radical self-reliance) and bring home with you anything and everything that is left after consumption or use. This means nothing - n.o.t.h.i.n.g - gets left behind. Can this be done when 55,000 people "go nuts" out in the desert for a week? Yes it can.
I saw instances where people picked up random waste objects that others had dropped, even cigarette butts. This is incredible. I have never experienced that on such a large scale - ever - and that contrasts what I as an event organizer in Denmark could ever expect of an audience.
To once again compare with Platform4, where we have an extremely helpful and responsible community that aids each other heavily, we still we struggle daily with mess, waste lying around and general difficulty with keeping things clean and tidy. I will admit that before coming to Burning Man I had simply settled with this being a necessary evil when organizing a place for many people to meet. But that notion has now been thoroughly and utterly contested. 55,000 people dedicated to radical self-expression (which also includes radical partying) out in the desert - and there is absolutely no waste anywhere to be found. Unbelievable! But true.

The synergy
Lastly I want to highlight the synergy that emerges when all these elements come together at the same time. Even if Burning Man surely has plenty of problems (organizational ones, too, I am sure), then to me, after having attended, it is still a phenomenon that appears to be the an example of something almost perfect within a range of disciplines: Organization, community building, communication, mediation (of values) and even within elements of what we today call crowdsourcing (or perhaps rather distributed sourcing). Everything that can be experienced at Burning Man is brought there by participants. Conceptualized by participants. Built by participants. Manned by participants. Now that is crowdsourcing to the max.

Photo Michael Holden CC BY-NC-ND

Deeper thought stimulation
During the week I also found myself often thinking much more deeply about myself and life in general. These thoughts that we are often to busy to delve very much into. Who I am, who I love, what my values are. Burning Man is very much a place that inspires such thinking.
I think it comes from talking to so many different people and seeing creativity unfold in so many different ways. But it also comes from being cut completely out of your daily life and daily routines, which - I think - enables you to get a bird eye view on what you are actually doing and what your surrounding world is really like.

So, wow.

Burning Man is a combination of unique characteristics, ideas and elements that together form an impressive whole. And that whole contains a magnificent spirit that permeates every single participant and everything around them (yes, almost like The Force). It is very hard to grasp.
All in all visiting Burning Man ranks among the most significant experiences I have ever had in my life. I still am not finished contemplating all these things and it is likely I never will. I sincerely want to come back again (many times) although it is hard and expensive when living on the other side of the globe. But even if I never manage to do so, this thing - the feeling - will always be in my head. Thank you Burning Man.

Photo by Nanna Tribler. CC-BY.


Top photo by mr. nightshade CC BY-NC-ND


UPDATE (DEC 19, 2012)

Another stunning video from the 2012 Burning Man Festival was posted today (or at least linked to today in the BM newsletter). It's a real stunner; filmed from a neighboring mountain with several cameras and then edited to form a 2.5 minute timelapse showing among other how grand the burning of the man really is: 


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  1. [...] opportunity to go to the magnificent Burning Man Festival this past summer (of which I have these thoughts). A tv-crew followed us and have now edited the footage into a series of programs that have aired [...]

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