The Midway Is Calling, to You and to Burning Man

Hundreds of art cars were circling the Man, shining in the dark. A thousand more bicycles were parked outside of his perimeter, covered in glow-wire. They formed a barricade around the Midway, late at night, as though watching the Man in case he made a sudden move.

I walked towards the Midway, maneuvered through the art cars, and entered through the giant mouth of what I can only describe as an evil clown. I was in the belly of a beast

Do you know what a midway is? It’s a carnival, it’s a con, it’s a chance for shady characters to offer you suckers bets on games of chance, it’s a place where strange museums trade in impossible curiosities. It’s an opportunity for you to be the farm and lose your shirt and see behind the curtain. It contains dozens of games ranging from warped ski-ball to impossible arcades. There are two stages where opera singers and fire dancers practice their arts. At its heart is a maze of mirrors.

It is as glowy and chaotic and blinky as anything else at Burning Man, but it is also something that, for a few years, people were wondering if Burning Man was in danger of losing: it is personal.

As Burning Man ticket sales have leaped and bound over the years, the playa experience has gotten bigger, louder, and grander. This is not a bad thing: did you see the Trojan horse burn? The sea of art cars and art installations have begun to reach out to deep playa. There was never anything like it on earth, and then more people came.

But so much of Burning Man had been defined, even just a few years ago, not by incredible spectacle but by moments of supreme synchronicity, of seemingly impossible personal connection, and moments where the gift of a stranger transforms the whole world.

That never went away, but some of us wondered if the sheer grandeur of a 70,000 person Burning Man was making it hard to find people in all the spectacle.

Then last year we got the Souk, and instead of asking the regionals to build even more sculptures to burn, Burning Man was asking them to create small scale, human sized, experiences – and keep them going night after night, day after day, so that tens of thousands of people could make a personal connection.

We loved it. Are you surprised? Much as everybody loves a spectacle, much as everybody loves building art, and burning it – having a stranger make you laugh is just as rewarding. Having a stranger touch your heart … isn’t that what we live for?

The Midway is a continuation of that. Bigger, louder, more of a spectacle in its own right … but just as human. It’s a carney barker asking you, yes you, to pick a card or find your lost love.

Burners I’ve talked to coming out of the Midway have mostly told me that they’re enchanted. A few have said they preferred the Souk – they don’t like clowns or they have actually been to a midway in their lives, while a Souk presented a whole new frontier – but the message I’ve heard after that is always the same:

“I like where this is going. Can we have more?”

More stories from the Midway coming soon.

Photo by Franco Folini, original art by Nina Kempf

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

8 Comments on “The Midway Is Calling, to You and to Burning Man

  • Jasmine says:

    >Having a stranger touch your heart … isn’t that what we live for?

    They usually just touch your ass.

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  • G says:

    Yo Caveat! Good to see your ride came through. :)

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  • Kelly says:

    Beautiful. The intimacy, the accidental happenings and the spirit of togetherness as we weave in and out of the booths, the small spectacles that enchant us into playfulness. Lovely piece Cavet.

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  • SFRoustAbout says:

    (I apologize profusely for hijacking your comment thread Ben but emails to every BM-Org address in my contacts has resolved to dead air) — (you know me by another name and another email but not for this)

    Re: your excellent post, there are those who can’t make it to the Midway and can only participate via the web vidstream — before we get to far into this year’s event I want to INCLUDE!!! them and therefore will paste below what I have sent elsewhere in the hope that it will achieve more visibility here than it has otherwise…

    There is a community of well over 3k “virtual burners” that used to hang out on the uStream feed — they have all been silenced this year and it sucks… what is happening this year is RADICAL EXCLUSION!!!

    ++++++ BEGIN PASTE +++++++
    Chat has been disabled on the new YouTube livestream vid feed which is an anathema to how previous streams were handled on uStream (however badly)

    Let’s see how many ways the new vid-crew has sinned:
    1) Inclusion: umm, no chat means gagged therefore I don’t exist and can’t be considered “included”
    2) Gifting: umm, no chat means I cannot verbally gift my ideas to others who couldn’t get to La Playa this year
    3) Self-Expression: see gagged above
    4) Communal: nope, no one here but me watching
    5) Civic Responsibility: yeah, shutting down conversation is a “civic goodness”
    6) Participation: NO COMMENT!!!
    7) Immediacy: uh yeah, right…

    So they fail on 70% of the 10 Principles — yeah, this is indeed righteous…

    So what if anarchy resolves on the vidstream chat??? the online crew there have maintained rather well in years past and isn’t that sort of the point???

    Hope that this resolves to something more than just me ranting because this is EXCLUDING!!! a whole community who participate via the vidstream who either couldn’t get tickets or couldn’t make it up to the desert for other reasons…
    +++++ END PASTE ++++++++

    and “Plug” and Bacon to one and all…

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    • Lucy says:

      I dont remember what year it was, but that first year on UStream, when Camp Envy was spontaneously created was a hoot. That missing nut. All that damn bacon talk. There was alot of very funny and witty people there that first year, and all the years that followed.
      This year, there is a chat that seems to have some of the old Camp Envy crowd, but there is no stream involved. In other words, it’s independent of the live stream on YouTube. You will have to open 2 screens to chat and watch. The chat is on
      The reasoning for yet another change? Just another sign of the times, I reckon.

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  • Chaps says:

    The Midway sounds totally rad! Thanks for making it come alive in print to all the virtual burners out there! Maybe next year….!

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  • Foxwalker says:

    I loved the midway and carnival atmosphere. It fits well with Burning Man. There were a lot of creative “burnified” carnival games.

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  • Dusty Bottoms says:

    Our midway contribution, Cock ‘N Candy, also won a Necklace Factory award! Our Orange County, CA team was so very proud and happy to contribute (we were the cotton candy booth). Last year we created a souk tent also, and we felt that participation seemed much greater this year, People connected with the midway theme, whereas “what’s a souk?” was asked a jillion times last year.

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