The Burning Man Phenomenon

How ever you may have heard of Burning Man referred to, there is no fair way to fully describe the phenomenon of Burning Man—the event—until you have gone and experienced it for yourself. Every year at the end of August, Black Rock City manifests for a week in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It is both a festival and a temporary city that is unlike any other. Burning Man is a deeply personal and simultaneously collective experience.

In 1986 Burning Man started in San Francisco as a small gathering on Baker Beach. By the mid 1990’s, it evolved into a temporary city of 9000 (in the middle of the Black Rock Desert) found via GPS coordinates. As of August 2012, Black Rock City had become a minor metropolis of 50,000 +. BRC is a fully functioning city, yet utterly temporary and free from many of the constraints of modern life. Art is everywhere; advertising and product placement are not. Nothing can be bought or sold (save for ice). Clothing is optional. Gifting, radical self-reliance and “Leave No Trace” are central tenants. Spontaneous expressions of joy are paramount.

Black Rock City is an amazing urban, social and cultural experiment largely because it is temporary, exists for a finite amount of time every year, requires thousands of volunteer hours, millions of dollars, and goes away without a trace. Burning Man continues to permeate modern cultural mythology, conversation, Facebook photos, and blog sites long after the dust settles first Saturday in September and the Man burns.

The Black Rock Desert is one of the harshest environments on earth (high desert, on a dried up alkaline lake bed). The environment is brutal, hot, dusty and dry. Nighttime temperatures drop dramatically. Dust storms create white out conditions. The environment requires vigilance and perseverance. The removal from an urbanized environment to one that is remote, uninhabited, and simply beautiful is part of what makes BRC the festival of festivals, and such an interesting urban experiment. It is a highly orchestrated, carefully planned, but totally unconstrained event. BRC is also amazing because it is temporary, the natural beauty and quality of light are dramatic, the location is far from civilization, and the experience at large is a complete sensory overload.

Everything that is BRC, from the people, law enforcement, art, massive sound stages, theme camps, art cars, and other curiosities is from the outside world. Burning Man is partially defined though decomodification within the event, but it is completely dependent upon resources and finances from the outside world.

This is where the paradox arises. BRC would not exist without the outside world. (Insert: discussion about global sustainability). It is a “Leave No Trace” event, but one that is dependent upon external resources that have to be appropriated, transported, consumed and then disposed of “elsewhere.” While “Leave No Trace” is a fundamental principle and environmental stewardship is deeply embedded in Burning Man culture, there is something peculiar and inherently hypocritical about drinking organic coconut water while engaging in the conspicuous consumption of hydrocarbons.

That said…Burning Man is a dramatic display of collective energy, excitement and self-expression. It is a test of self and a challenge to the dominant hegemony of the corporate globalized world. It is a very special event, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to experience, participate in, and share in Black Rock City.

Elizabeth Jackson