Lessons Beyond the Playa: Bringing Burning Man Home
It’s day: white playa dust hovers over the horizon, kicked up by hot wind creating atmospheric planes. The playa is a player in the epic Burning Man. Its white dust is all over you. You’ve inhaled it. It has turned your hair gray. Goggles and masks are required; it is part of the experience. As you bike through the playa, images emerge. The sculptural wooden man at the center, which is burned at the end of the event, serves as a geographic reference point and reminder of the ephemeral nature of Burning Man. Anthropomorphic art cars cross the plane, evoking imagery from Mad Max and Star Wars. A playa full of art and extensive camps provoke awe and wonder at both scale and human imagination. Enormous wooden pyramids conjure references to prehistoric Egypt. A 747 plane, transformed into a music venue, punctuates the horizon.
Slowly the sun sets, heat dissipates, and new colors emerge. At night, Black Rock City becomes a city of lights, fire, and music. Music pulses and illuminated figures, bikes, art cars, and theme camps light the night through sunrise.
While the art, music, and environment are mesmerizing, the people are the best part. This is no place for audience. You are an actor in this play called “the burn.” This means everything from getting to the desert (no small feat) to creating costumes and experiential environments.
Burning Man is a nine-day event in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. In 40 years, it has evolved from a gathering of 20 to approximately 70,000 encompassing about eight square miles filled with over 325 documented art installations. As an organization, Burning Man awards approximately $1.1 million in grants to support selected installations. The 2016 theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop,” inspired by the art, maker culture, and creative philanthropy of the Italian Renaissance.
Fundamentally, as we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month in October, we celebrate creativity and what it means to be human today. We celebrate everyday creative expression in all of its forms—from the amateur to the master artist and his/her craft. Burning Man celebrates that, too. At Burning Man, we are all participants. DIY, or Do-It-Yourself culture, is the expectation. We are each endowed with a unique gift and creativity to contribute to the playa. There is no “them” or “us.”
Beyond Burning Man’s power as a Bacchanalian feast for the senses, there’s a deeper poignant experience. Most notably, this is exemplified by the “Temple Project,” an architecturally impressive, ornate, and sacred wooden space designed by artist/designer David Best in a style akin to a Southeast Asian Buddhist temple. Here, people commune to celebrate and honor those they have lost. Imagery and offerings fill the altars, occupied by people in prayer, meditation, and tribute. As humans living transient lives, we are all connected by love and loss. On the last night of Burning Man, the temple is burned in a culminating communal experience, demonstrating the powerful role of the arts.
As an arts agency leader, I lead initiatives in community arts, public art including social practice work and art+tech, outdoor festivals and events, investments in creativity, cultural participation, urban planning, and public policy. There are clear connections between Burning Man and this portfolio.
For arts professionals, there were outstanding installations to be experienced. To name a few, the three-tower “Black Rock Lighthouse Service” by artists Jonny and Max Poynton; “The Śiṣya” by artists Rob Bell and Krista Sanders; the “Jack Champion’s Murder” by artist Jack Manfrina; “Sonic Runway” by artist Rob Jensen and team; and Michael Tuluc’s “Red.” There is a lot of freedom in temporary installations, which are unencumbered by permanency and conservation needs. For urban planners and policy wonks, Burning Man is a fascinating example of a “pop up” city, with takeaways for removing barriers to activation of the public realm and facilitating “easy urbanism.”
Burning Man is part cultural phenomenon, part cultural revolution. These 10 Principles of Burning Man can provide insight on cultural development in our own respective communities:
- Radical Inclusion: All are welcome and no prerequisites exist for participation.
- Gifting: Acts of unconditional gift giving are highly valued.
- Decommodification: Environments that are unmediated by sponsorships, transactions or advertising are protected, substituting consumption for participation.
- Radical self-reliance: In an extreme environment, individuals are encouraged to rely on their own inner resources.
- Radical self-expression: Self-expression is a unique gift offered to others.
- Communal effort: Valuing creative collaboration, the event strives to produce social networks, public spaces, art, and communication that support cooperation.
- Civic responsibility: All are responsible for public welfare.
- Leaving No Trace: All respect the environment and clean up after themselves, and when possible, leave the land in a better state than before.
- Participation: Core is the concept that transformative change can only occur through personal participation, achieved by doing.
- Immediacy: Be present—one of the most important touchstones.
These are principles of the playa we can embrace and bring home to our own cultural policy and practice. Whether it’s a festival, public art, or performance, or your cultural participation, consider how these concepts can be integrated into your work.
Thank you to the playa community for a sizzling experience. Most importantly, thanks to Burning Man’s Director of Art and Civic Engagement Kim Cook.
Participate. Create. Connect.