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