To the extent that you learn about a community during a crisis, I wonder what our reaction so far says about us.
Many are mocking the ticket seekers, suggesting this is a kind of Darwinian victory: if you can’t get your ticket you don’t deserve to get there. The Onion parodied Burning Man with a similar conceit about eight years ago. It was funny then, but it still wasn’t original.
It’s less funny now, because it’s become apparent that some very good people are being left on the outside: people who clearly have a lot to offer. People who would be a benefit to the entire community – and I don’t just mean “big name DJs.” In fact, I’m not talking about them at all. However few tickets there are, Burning Man will never run out of DJs.
But we have run out of space. In my previous post I suggested that 21st century Burning Man was a culture of abundance, and this is our first meaningful encounter with scarcity. I made a few suggestions about what to do about it.
Many people writing in the comments section had much better ideas than I did. But by far the most trenchant idea proposed was this: the future of Burning Man belongs to the regionals.
They got what I’d missed: the ticket limit is potentially a catalyst turning the regionals from followers to co-conspirators. “Burning Man” itself would become a kind of pilgrimage site that the faithful try to get to once in a while, but “Burning Man” culture would be led by dozens of regional events around the globe.
How you feel about that might depend on your experiences with the regionals. It does for me. Would you mind sticking around while I explain this?
I was introduced to Burning Man by a friend of mine who quit her life to go on a cross-country journey to nowhere in her RV. She spent the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot, met some other people in RVs, and they told her about this thing happening in the Nevada desert. She didn’t have anywhere else to be, so she followed along.
When it was all over and she was living with some Burners in Colorado, she called me up.
“You HAVE to come see this,” she said.
“Uh huh,” I replied. “I’ll put that on my to-do list before ‘tell my father I love him’ but after ‘die in a dual over a woman.’”
She was shocked. “You STILL haven’t fought that dual?”
“I’ve got a day job! I’m busy!”
“Really now,” she asked me. “Why won’t you at least try it?”
“Because it combines camping (which I hate) with hot temperatures (which I hate) with raves (which I hate) with what sounds like atrocious installation art (which I hate) … with 40,000 people who like all these things so much that they’d go to Nevada for them. It’s like everything I hate, only without water.”
I thought that would be the end of it, but she wouldn’t stop. Eventually she invited me up to Colorado to attend a burner event in Steamboat during my birthday. I said “what the hell,” and spent my birthday in a natural hot spring, with a glass of very expensive scotch, surrounded by naked people, watching fire dancers perform to a drumming circle, on a cool mountain under a full moon.
Oh HELL yes! I LOVED these people!
I was hooked. I went back to Apogeia and took part in the eternal warfare between cowboys and clowns. I went to a few other regional parties, promising that I would eventually reach the Burn, and in another year I did. Now I’m a regular.
So it works, yes? The regionals as both a hook and a manifestation of Burning Man does the job, right?
Yes but, here’s the thing. You might have spotted it already. The first burner experience I ever had, the one that hooked me on to the whole thing, was almost completely unlike Burning Man in almost every way.
It took place in the mountains. I was literally immersed in water. It lasted for a weekend. Instead of camping, we spent the night in a luxury hotel sweet we were all chipping in for, and the next morning went shopping in order to make a huge fresh breakfast. There was a (relatively) small group of people involved. It was scheduled out pretty tightly.
To one extent or another, all my regional experiences have been this way. Some have been amazing, some have been dreadful … but none of them have really been anything “like” Burning Man.
That’s not because of a lack of expertise. In fact I’m going to risk offending some friends here by saying that the burner events I like the least are usually thrown by experienced burners in San Francisco. These are the same people who make Burning Man happen – literally – and yet their Decom/Precom/Holiday/Thank You/Keynote/Summit parties leave me annoyed and bored. They’re everything I hate crammed into one industrial or gallery space – except that I know and love these people.
Some of it is an issue of place: the environment you’re in matters. Some of it is an issue of population: how many people you bring matters. Some of it is an issue of duration: how long it lasts matters. A lot of it is the people and the expectations they bring … and frankly “Burning Man” does so well what “San Francisco” does so badly. But a lot of it is also intangibles, and the bottom line is this: Regionals will never be Burning Man. Most won’t even get close.
That can be great. I wouldn’t have traded some of my regional experiences for anything – and some of the best have been the least like Burning Man. Some of the worst have tried way too hard and been sadly derivative.
But for a whole combination of factors, beginning with the Nevada desert, no regional will ever be an equivalent experience to Burning Man. Ain’t gonna happen.
So when we talk about the regionals picking up the slack for a Burning Man that can’t accommodate all ticket-seekers in the future, what are we talking about?
We may say they’re going to spread Burning Man culture, but in fact they’re going to reinvent it. Which is what they have to do (and to some extent are already doing) if they’re going to thrive. They will be (and perhaps already are) more and more successful the more they find their own identities. Inspired by Burning Man, but not derivative of it — the way the best theme camps at Burning Man are inspired by the event but doing their own thing. The very best of them may actually run out of DJs.
Honestly I have very mixed feelings about that, but I think it’s inevitable: even if Burning Man expands by getting its own private site, I suspect the eventual alternative to a burner culture led by the regionals is decline.
Perhaps it’s a fundamental truth: when you change the world, it changes you.
The thought terrifies me. But I still have faith in abundance. There are now more pilgrims to Burning Man than it can accommodate in a week. That generates energy, and what the people who can’t get in to Burning Man decide to do with it will change us.
We could do worse than have them expend it in their local Burner communities.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com