Holy wow, what a week! Let it be known: 2013 was one of the greats. I am in awe of the energy and ideas that swirl and pollinate to create Burning Man. I hopped on art cars, I danced at sunrise, I did an afternoon bike tour — all in full clown-face. I was surrounded by friends and new hires for epic days and nights. I even managed to get some sleep. The weather was belissimo and the dust was mild. What. A. Playa.
Some of the best conversations of my life have taken place on the playa. These conversations can be as brief as a call-and-response to honking the horn on my bike (“Dirty clowns make great dust fellows!”) or as long as a sunrise session out at The Office. One topic kept popping up: Have you had many interactions with newbies?
We can all agree that Black Rock City is huge. First-timers are gobsmacked by the scale of it and old-timers are too. The 2013 Burning Man event population was 69,613 (editor’s note: this figure was updated Sept. 14).
It seems like a lot of you were there for the first time. Welcome.
The redux: I first attended Burning Man in 1998 (population: 15,000). I’ve felt like a new-comer and an old broad. I’ve lived on both sides of the curtain –blissed-out in ruby slippers at sunset or setting an alarm clock so I could work the all-day Media Mecca shift. My friends are a mix of old-timers, volunteers, artists, occasional attendees and newer burners. One friend asked, “Are we all in this together?” Another wondered “Who are all these people and why aren’t they talking? Is it because I’m old?” Our greatest concern: Are first-timers having the same random magic playa moments that we are? I’m curious about the answers to these questions. I had a few people run away from my attempts at conversation in the porta-potty line (usually a source of great stranger entertainment).
Join the adventure, don’t just create your own.
The mega-camp is one way Burning Man has evolved with the growing population. This is a different way to attend Burning Man than when many of us started coming. There have always been camps that provide food and shade. But it wasn’t until I started reading blogs and news stories after this year’s event that I understood how prevalent it is to have meals and water and showers and bikes and sleeping arrangements provided. $1000 for a Burning Man experience? It sounds like making a reservation at a resort. I read about someone organizing a camp that almost ran out of water mid-week for 150 people. My first thought was, 150 people came to Burning Man without their own water? The Black Rock Desert is a harsh and sometimes unsafe environment. What about Radical Self-Reliance? The pamphlet that comes with your ticket is called the Survival Guide for a reason. These “turnkey” camps are housing part of the newer population yet they have created a subculture that relies on someone else for survival and fun.
Another Burning Man tenant is Radical Inclusion. Basically: We are all in this together and we respect each others creativity. I may not like your shiny hot pants unicorn costume and you may not be down with my kazoo or beige granny panties, but we can dance side by side and maybe I’ll randomly cruise through your camp with a tray of bacon and we can share a laugh. That is radical inclusion: a laissez faire attitude that is friendly and open and neighborly. If your tent is blowing over, I am going to run over and help. If you’re making margaritas, let me grab my cup. I wonder if the newer burners know the joy of passing out chilled avocado slices to strangers on a hot afternoon. Radical Inclusion is not exclusive dinners or cocktail parties. The artists who build those big, amazing wood-burning bulls or spinning coyotes want you to interact with their art. They didn’t build art for people to gawk; the art is part of a larger community.
I had a weird interaction that made me question how we are acculturating newer burners regarding Radical Inclusion. Is Radical Inclusion being misconstrued as anything-goes behavior? Let me say: If someone doesn’t want to hug you, that is their choice. Being at Burning Man doesn’t mean you get to do what you want. Not everyone wants a hug. You have to take “no” for an answer. What transpired Friday night was a super-bummer and my friends helped me rally, but still: we could have done without that scene. Burning Man is about creating your ideal self and opening up to further possibility and sharing it with the people around you. It isn’t about anarchy or secret clubs or us versus them.
During our eight-hour exodus to the gate, my BFF & I put costumes back on. “We are still at Burning Man!” was our rally cry. People gave us frozen popsicles, food and shade. Candace, also known as Evil Pippi, says she feels like her most authentic self on the playa. If she had her way, we’d still be at Burning Man. As we worked our way through the parking-lot line we asked people about their experience. Most of the people were first- or second- time burners. Some people were friendly, others seemed uncomfortable when we approached. Was that their Burning Man, staying in an RV and not interacting?
In the years I worked for The Man we talked about not hand-holding people through the burn and leading by example. Do it yourself, it’s more fun that way! But 10 years ago we weren’t thinking about a population this large and turnkey camps on this scale. The Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter, the Survival Guide and the official website are wonderful resources but they aren’t reaching people who don’t even bring their own water. How do we bridge this divide? One friend suggested all turnkey camps register and get a BM101 lesson on arrival. Another suggested we let these burners drive the event into the ground until we’re selling condo plots. Another suggested an acculturation committee. UGH! I love Burning Man and want it to thrive. That’s why I’m reaching out to you, the community.
Dear readers, these are the questions I’m pondering after being off the desert for almost a week. Black Rock City is going through a boom phase. We aren’t a normal city and we need to treat our social experiment with care. I’m hoping to tap into the city’s consciousness for some ideas.
How do we acculturate people who are having such disparate experiences? How do new burners feel about their experience? How do repeat burners feel about this year’s event? Can we get new blood to start volunteering during the event?
Comments are open. Be nice, no spitting.