What do you do at Burning Man, anyway?

Why yes, there is a gospel choir. Why do you ask?

The most common question I get from people who are never going to go to Burning Man is “So … what do you DO at Burning Man?”

Which is funny, because the question I’m most frequently asked by first-timers about to go to Burning Man is “What will I do there?”

Huh.  Well … it’s kinda tough to explain.  You see … oh geez … how to say this … Okay:  Burning Man presents you with the same number of existential choices you have in real life.  Maybe more.

Does that not make sense?  Maybe not.  Okay, let me try explaining this the long way.

Most of us, long before we ever ended up dusty and sunburned, had heard a story about something that happened on the playa, or a tale about Burning Man’s exodus from San Francisco to the desert, or expressed a wish out loud only to be told … right or wrong … “oh yeah, Burning Man’s like that.”

These stories, whatever they are, are what keep thousands of people walking through the gates each year, and many coming back.  We all know why.  In the absence of traditional commerce at Burning Man, experiences … what Chicken John has called “units of interesting” … are the coin of the realm.  We may be absentmindedly jealous of the guy with the biggest RV and the camp with the fresh seafood kept in a refrigeration unit that costs more than a house in Miami – but that’s something you can find anywhere.  The stories of Burning Man experiences, built on 100% pure units of interesting, are what we go out into the desert to find and bring back.

These stories get us there, they keep us returning, and … unlike traditional currency … they are not devalued when shared.   Indeed, the more experiences you give the more you get:   It turns out that a gifting economy is actually quite good at developing units of value that are truly renewable.

But what do you DO to get units of interesting?

Well, the question is similar to the one that you ask yourself in when you’re on summer vacation, or have just graduated college, or have moved to a new city, or retired.  You figure out something to do that’s meaningful … and you do it.  Or you get stuck and become miserable.

That search for meaning is every bit as important at Burning Man as it is anywhere else – and like the search for meaning in daily life, it doesn’t stop just because you’ve found one answer.

Most of the really great theme camps whose organizers I’ve had the pleasure of talking to were established because someone said “Wouldn’t that be awesome if?” … and a bunch of people agreed.  Later in the lifespan of their camp, they faced the same issue again.  Your first year running a truly great theme camp is a kind of magic.  And the second year.  And maybe the third year, if you’re lucky.  But by the fourth and fifth year it’s become all about finding room for yet another RV and figuring out where to store the façade.

By theme camp Monticello’s fifth year, according to Guv’nor, they were facing just this dilemma:  it was getting harder and harder to run for less and less payoff.  Their solution was to burn their camp, take a year off (this year) and hopefully come back with something new another time.  Basically they wanted a new story to find meaningful.

Two years ago I had a great conversation with one of Ashram Galactica’s organizers, who said the camp, then in its seventh or eighth year, was at a crossroads.  The routine of running the playa’s premier hotel had taken its toll and they were looking for a way to bring the magic back.

“We’ve reached a certain pinnacle of excellence,” he said (and oh my god was it true), “but we can’t just keep it up.  So we either need to call it quits or come up with some new, even higher, level to take it to.”

My understanding is that they actually (this is crazy) sublet their camp to another group last year while they took the year off.

What I’m saying is:  such excellence at Burning Man is hard.  It’s work.  Just like in the rest of the world.  For all that the playa is a place of incredible charisma and magic, charisma rubs off with the dust and must be re-applied.  The effort only works as long as you find the story you’re in the process of telling to be meaningful.

Which brings us back to the question:  what do you do at Burning Man?

And see, this is what makes Burning Man different from a trip to Disney World, where the clear answer is “ride on the rides, eat sugar-on-a-stick, and point at white people.”  Burning Man has all these things, but it has so many more choices because Disney World is a closed system:  the Disney Corporation has clearly delineated what are meaningful choices and what are not.

This is what makes Burning Man different from a music festival, where the obvious answer is “Bounce from stage to stage, listen to the acts, visit the merch area, and hit on white people.”  All of these are options at Burning Man (except the merch table), but it has so many more choices because a music festival is a closed system:  the organizers have established what is supposed to be meaningful and what is not.

Burning Man is an open system.  You can set up a Thomas Jefferson themed party camp.  You can run a hotel.  My first year at Burning Man I carried around a book of original fairy tales and read them to people I met.  Last year I started a war.

Burning Man does not come with a set of instructions, it comes with existential choices:   as many existential choices as you have in the rest of you life … and maybe more.

That’s what so remarkable, and so difficult, about Burning Man:  you never get to just go along with what you’re supposed to do.  You have to take agency.  You have to get in touch with what you want.

What are you going to do at Burning Man?  You’re going to spend much of the week answering that question.  You will chase units of interesting through a city where 50,000 people have created spaces, art, and events that they find meaningful – and eventually you’ll build units of interesting yourself.  You will chose to follow whatever speaks to you.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

10 Comments on “What do you do at Burning Man, anyway?

  • Flipper says:

    I can only speak for myself about what I do at Burning Man. It’s such an individual and spiritual thing for everyone. My favorite thing to do on the playa to provide units of interesting is to put soiled panties on my head and rub cocaine into my penis as I masturbate to thoughts of puppy dogs and kittens. Just as I cum, I shove the panties into my mouth so no one can hear me scream.

    Is anyone else into this?

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  • Flaming-bunny says:

    my unit of interesting is 9 inches long.

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  • tooty says:

    Of my 10 years on the playa, my favorite Unit of Interesting was Paul Addis’ performance. It divided the community so perfectly between those who ‘get it’ and those who ‘don’t get it’. 07 was my last year. Now I just laugh at all ye who still buy tickets to this farce.

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  • Kiki says:

    Much appreciated, magister!

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  • Robn says:

    I use orange cones to mark areas where virtual holes have been discovered to keep the population at burning man safe. On Wednesday, I block off a small portion of the Esplanade in front of BMIR because a substantial number of virtual holes have been discovered there. I also cone off things that are sharp. I also will help you find your lost cat, if you are missing him/her. I lost my cat at burning man once, so I know what you are going through.

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  • John Glueck says:

    The first three comments in this thread are OUTSTANDING!

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  • LeRoy (OMBOI) says:


    There are hundreds of intersections in Black Rock City and some have theme-camps like Playa Putt miniature golf, or Bioluminati where you get your bike properly lit for night riding or the Necklace Factory, where they offer everything you could need to create your own memento from the Burn. Ours was something different…a televangelist’s nightmare.
    Kitty-corner from us was Cougar Melon Camp, where women would troll the street offering platters of sliced melons and their melons to prospective young bucks. I think of Cougars as “older” women but these were like “Helloow Kitty”!
    The next corner was the Whiskey Whores, where you could get free shots of whiskey, a spanking and branded all under one roof. A one stop shopping saloon.
    The next was called Orgazmateria, where they guided groups in foreplay, titillation and full on orgazmatron classes. Visitors who enter should remember to wear shades, as the headlights could blind you. On our block was the Bordello of Dust (say no more), the Human Carcass Wash (offering free group sponge baths) and the Abstininthe Bar (for the adventuresome to try absinthe and old lace).
    Then there was our corner of the intersection. Beyond gay friendly, it was an outrageous homage to the “Burning Tran”. Complete with a five story shopping mall built on site from steel scaffolding, 2 DJs, a bar, a trampoline, movie screen and garden patio. At times there would be so many people dancing on our corner that we would create our own white out.
    A statuesque platinum blonde with a XXX drill instructors body kickin up dust in front of our bar received very little attention. Below her waist she sported white faux-fir fluffy boots and a neon fuchsia invisi-mesh thong; above, a Camelback, a Hula-hoop and the obligatory 3 Ns (navel, nipple and nose rings). All the essentials of fluids, fun and intrigue…don’t leave home without them.
    Well anyone who can keep a hoop going while dancing in a full horizontal arch is worth watching in my book.
    Near her, doing a slow solo grind is a guy with nothing on except a small see-through silk one sided nut sling, anchoring his package over one hip. I never saw a knot and I never saw it slip down. Maybe there was glue or Velcro involved but I swear it never moved.
    I pointed them out to Esquire for the novelty of the moment and before I could turn around he swooped in and escorted the slinger off to his lair.
    Meanwhile, I’m not sure the hula-thong even got a drink, or perhaps I just missed it. Women feel strangely uninhibited here. They lie down and offer up body shots of Tequila, in pierced navel shooters or nipple runways and challenge you to not let a drop hit the bar. I did my best.

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  • Mercedese Witty says:

    Well, all these comments seem to be at the places at Burning Man, I mostly don’t go… I go for the more spiritual sites at Burning Man. The Temple services out on the playa. I watched a beautiful woman play a gigantic Earth Harp… Amazing stuff. I hugged a woman while she cried over the loss of her child and hung her photos on the Temple, moving spiritual stuff. I go to the metaphysical classes that are held on a variety of spiritual subjects. My units of interesting may not be anothers. I watched the Trojan Horse pull across the playa. Burning Man is all aspects of the human condition…. You find what you are looking for, so if you are looking for the biggests wildest party rave or the Orgasmatron or the Pubic Spa, or how to make your own custom fitted dildo (lots of fun stuff for those who want that sort of thing) you will find that… If you are looking to meet people from all over the world and just create understanding and love, well you can find that also. No judgments on people that dive happily in the weird carnality that you can enjoy on the playa…. It is all part of what makes Burning Man such an adventure. It has something for everyone!

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  • Pat Murphy says:

    Pull up a chair in the shade and open your eyes.
    Ranger Filthy

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  • Griselda says:

    This year I won’t be doing anything at Burning Man. I won’t be going. The default world has pulled me away and I must abide by the decision I’ve made to not attend. But I’m still burning and that fire compels me to create units of interesting at the home I call home 51 weeks a year. I can, so why not? It takes a bit more effort without the magic that Burning Man provides, but the possibilities are even more endless, and I’ve not found a single person that isn’t looking to create and engage in units of interesting.

    On a different topic, please write a book. I always enjoy reading your posts and I wish there were many pages bound together with your words on it that I could read for hours.

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