The Mystery of the Burning Man Festival

The Burning Man festival is an occurrence so off the beaten path that many have never heard of it, or have a vague idea as to what it entails usually formed in their own imaginations. Those who are a little more familiar approach this, now global, phenomenon with caution, the event itself shrouded in mystery and something that is out of reach for most. Here we can unpack some of the mystery by delving into the history of the Burning Man, and exploring the one week festival that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA.


It all began in 1986, when a few friends burned a wooden man on Baker Beach in San Francisco, as a ritual around the summer solstice. As this practise began to attract yearly crowds, the wooden man became talent and taller, growing exponentially from his initial eight feet. In 1990, the LA police, who had become familiar with this annual beach-side attraction which was, by this stage, attracting a few hundred people, stated that burning the wooden structure was a fire risk. This was the push needed to allow a tradition to morph into something much more profound and on a far larger scale.


One of the Burning Man founders, Kevin Evans, had attended an art event in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada which “had a great and lasting impact on [his] life”, which spurred the solstice tradition into a new location and time, Labor Day weekend, and the festival as we know it today (humbly) began. It was met but much scepticism and often downright criticsied for being a home to “lost” adults who were “making up an organised religion as they went along” and, certainly, it was a hodge-podge mix of characters, often connected in some way to the arts, attempting to reclaim a culture that had been lost in modern society. By 1999, 23,000 people were attending the festival and the wooden man himself was 54 feet tall. This year was of note, as it was the first time that the man was burned on the Saturday night of the festival, a tradition continuing to this day.


The festival’s rules, written in 2004 by co-founder Larry Harvey, ensure that the spirit of the Burning Man is maintained despite challenging desert climates, increasing numbers of participants and the ever changing outside world. They are as follows (taken from the official website):


1. Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.


2. Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.


3. Decommodification
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.


4. Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.


5. Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.


6. Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.


7. Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.


8. Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.


9. Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
Nowadays, various Burning Man ‘spinoffs’ can be found around the globe, notably in New Zealand, Israel and Japan. Regular participants refer to themselves as ‘Burners’, and many introduce their children to the festival from young ages, believing it to be a space of understanding and acceptance. Whilst children may be exposed to practises or behaviours that are considered unsuitable for people of their ages, many argue that this exposure is no more or less than in any other big city and, with over 50,000 participants during the past few years, Black Rock City (as it is known), certainly is a city. As with every city, this one has practical rules, including a grid-like street structure which makes it easy for any medical aid to attend to those in need (and with burning hot day temperatures, sand storms, and freezing night time temperatures, these are often called upon), a ban on all driving except vehicles fulfilling an artistic function known as ‘mutant vehicles’, and all burning to be performed on a burn platform.


Though certainly weird, Burners rave about the sense of belonging, without judgement, that they experience at the festival. It is a place largely without electricity, so internet is scarce, meaning that people are cut off from the outside world and all it’s pressures. This environment is certainly suited to artistic endeavour and expression, inspired by the starry desert sky and rules of acceptance.