What is Burning Man?

No really, what is it?

block rock city - aerial

It is surprisingly difficult to describe exactly what the Burn is, or why the people who go tend to fall in love with it. I think this is in part because it’s never quite the same for one person to the next - or even for the same person year-to-year.

People are often tempted to jump to the comparison to music festivals, but the essence of Burning Man is very much counter to a festival experience. Festivals book headliners - they organize specific artists that attendees come to see. The attendees get to have shared moments of watching the same thing - there is some variety in the artists you will choose to see of course, but at the end of the day you can sit down with most any other attendee and find that your experience overlapped with theirs.

Burning Man has no headliners, it books no stages, the people who go are not coming to see any one artist or do any one thing in particular. Instead, the 70,000 people attending come with their own offerings - they come with art, they come with food, they come with fantastic ideas and creations, sometimes they simply come with their own good will and an open heart, but all of it is brought to be shared. There are hundreds of events and activities going on every minute, thousands of little stages all waiting to be discovered.

So when you sit down with another burner and compare notes on your adventures so far, there’s a good chance you will find little to no overlap at all. Experiences are not defined by a few headliners (unless you count the burning of the Man and the Temple). Everyone’s path at Burning Man is different - the moments and memories you make there will be totally unique to you. It is not about the shared experience of seeing and doing the same things like a festival, it is, in many respects, a personal journey that may bear little similarities to your expectations and anticipations coming in. As is oft quoted on the playa, “you don’t get the burn you want, you get the burn you need.”

That’s probably enough dancing around the question, so I’ll attempt to give a more literal answer to hopefully tie this together:

Burning Man is a temporary city in the desert of Nevada that exists for a week each year. The event is guided by 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. The people who attend build the city and create experiences for one another - there are no spectators.

To me, Burning Man is an opportunity to step outside the world for a moment and experience a different way of relating with the people around you and with yourself that is not burdened by the weights and expectations of society.

There are many, many other resources out there that try to answer this question of what the Burn is, but in my opinion there are two videos that capture that together capture as much of essence of the Burn as possible (outside of actually being there on the playa to experience it yourself):

An episcopalian priest gives sermon about his trip. He is not the most common audience, but gives an excellent perspective about his experiences joining his daughter to experience the Burn.

16 minutes of chasing a ping pong ball across the desert as it makes it way through art installations and crowds while avoiding art cars. It may sound silly, but I think is one of the truest videos that illustrate being out on the playa and simply following your whims. There are drone videos of cool art that make the event look sexy as hell, but this is what it actually feels like when you’re there.

Black Rock City

block rock city - aerial

Black Rock City and the playa take up about 7 square miles altogether - it’s a big place. The city itself is laid out as a clock. There are 5 main areas/points of interest:

The Man

The Man is the center of the clock. It is always a large wooden man, but the exact design varies from year to year. There is typically some sort of surrounding base where smaller art and activities are collected. The Man burns on Saturday night, and the burn itself is a large celebration. The Man is one of the easiest points to orient yourself by, so once it’s gone it can get a little tricker to get around.

The Temple

The Temple sits on the 12:00 line and is about level with the inner ring of the city. The Temple varies in design each year, but its purpose remains the same:

In Black Rock City, amid the joyous cacophony of sights and sounds, a lone building rises out of the deep playa in quiet contrast. Welcome to the Temple: a gathering spot for those seeking solace and respite during Burning Man. Part of the beauty of the Temple is that it is a sanctuary for all, no matter your religion, spiritual inclination, or lack thereof. It is where people come together on the playa to honor what is important to them and to their community.

When the Temple opens, it’s a clean slate. By the end of the event, every inch is covered with photos, inscriptions, art, small mementos and even the ashes of loved ones left by participants. The Temple is one of the most important places on the playa for Burners and many find catharsis there.

There is only one official ritual in the Temple, and that is to burn it. On Sunday night of the event, with thousands of participants as witnesses, the Temple is burned in silence.

Black Rock City Temple Grant

In my own experience, the essence of the Temple is that it is a place where people bring the things they wish to let go of. You may wish to come with an offering of your own, but it is certainly not expected - I have had years where I have had nothing to bring and I have had years with too much to bring. It is a overwhelming experience to walk through the Temple to see what others have brought - I don’t recommend rushing straight to the Temple, but when you are feeling ready it is one of the few experiences I would consider a must-have each year.

The Inner Playa

The Man and the Temple sit within the Inner Playa, which is the inner circle of desert mostly surrounded by the city. This area is littered with art and mutant vehicles - the heat of the day can keep crowds at bay, but at night it turns into a bustling hub of lights and sounds.

The Outer Playa

Beyond the circle of the city the playa continues. There is art out here, but it’s sparser, and sometimes weirder. Mutant vehicles roam on extended trips, but if there’s any place where some solitude is possible it’s out here. Daft Punk plays at the trash fence at midnight.

The City

block rock city - aerial

The city runs between 2:00 and 10:00 on the clock and is made of up radial avenues and concentric streets. The innermost road is called Esplanade and tends to the biggest and brightest camps, many of which return as familiar sights year after year. After Esplanade, the concentric streets names are always alphabetical starting with A and going through to L; the full names are based on the theme for that year.

The city is the heart of Burning Man - this is where the full population of the event lives and sleeps, and placed theme and support camps take up but the very outskirts of the event. The theme camps are simply camps that offer some form of interactivity - this might be food (us!), it might be a service, it might be art, it might be a game, it may be some elaborate structure, the only limits are imagination. Support camps are not interactive within the city itself but instead exist as a home base for teams of people responsible for major art pieces, city infrastructure, or mutant vehicles. On the 6:00 line is the Center Camp plaza. Most of the camps surrounding this represent event orgs - this is where to go to get information, access lost and found, register our food permit, etc.

The Principles

10 principles of Burning ManThe 10 principles of the event are guidelines - not rules. They are not “governing” principles, but act more as things to aspire to. That being said, I wanted to do a quick overview of the 10 and what they mean to our camp:

  • Radical inclusion: all are warmly welcome in the camp and to our events. Always seek to grow the circle.
  • Gifting: we come with something to offer our community, and we give freely with no expectation of a return.
  • Decommodification: there is no exchange of money on the playa, and I like to extend that further to not even discussing it. Gifts are the norm if someone is in need.
  • Radical self-reliance: beyond the obvious, just try to stay aware of not expecting things to magically happen. This doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself, but reach out and verify your assumptions.
  • Radical self-expression: this is a personal one, but I want to stress that any way you wish to express yourself is welcome within our camp. If you want to dress up, dress up - I love the costumes there - and if you don’t, don’t. If you want to go by a different name, different pronouns, or would like to be a version of yourself that you might not usually get to be, we will support and embrace it.
  • Communal effort: keep a mind to helping out whenever and wherever you can, inside and outside the boundaries of the camp.
  • Civic responsibility: watch out for fellow camp members and burners, be involved in maintaining the kind of atmosphere you want to be a part of.
  • Leaving no trace: this is a more of a practical principle than the others, and one we strictly adhere to. We will leave nothing behind, and we will understand that this is a full time responsibility and not something that just happens on the final day. Keeping things clean and under control is a neccessity.
  • Participation: no spectators. You are here to participate, not watch - be active, get involved with things you see. This is the time.
  • Immediacy: this is one of the most important ones to me. Don’t go to Burning Man because you’re excited to share stories after, don’t go and talk about work, don’t worry about taking photos or sharing on social media. Be in the moment, be there for the sake of being there - it really does make a difference when you choose to be present in the immediate moment.