Burning Man is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s a social experiment for the ages. It’s a far-reaching, phenomenal community. It’s a ritual that weaves together cultural traditions from peoples all over the world. Since nothing else is like it in the world, it can be hard to locate appropriate terms to explain it. For all the things that Burning Man certainly is, one that mindful Burners will vigilantly note that Burning Man is not, is a festival.
The word “festival” encompasses a lot of ideas (film festivals, music festivals, taco festivals etc.) but usually it expresses a period of celebration. Burning Man contains some of the same ingredients, but it’s a totally different recipe. At Burning Man an effigy is raised and eventually burned, but the experience is accompanied as much by tears as by laughter.
Do we celebrate at Burning Man? Absolutely. Ask any Burner why they’re involved, though, and their response will often sound much more purposeful, like you might expect from a teenager running away to join the circus or a monk on a pilgrimage in a foreign land. At Burning Man, experiences aren’t provided by the organizers, they’re cultivated organically in how the city and the people in it grow together. From its humble beginnings as a gathering on the beach near San Francisco, Burning Man has always been an experiment to see what would happen when these elements come together. Black Rock City itself is born each August out of a shared intention to create, and the experience is the sum total of that collaboration.
At curated festivals, we step into someone else’s art, but at Burning Man we get a fresh canvas to create our own art together. For some, the laissez faire approach to the experience inspires celebration — for others, grief. This range of valences found at Burning Man makes it too big and beautiful to neatly fold up into the “festival” box. Like Tucker Gumber — better known as the Festival Guy — explains: “When you buy a ticket to a festival you’re saying ‘here’s my money do everything for me.’ When you buy a ticket to Burning Man you say ‘here’s my money now get out of the way.’”
What’s the Harm?
It may not seem like such an offense if the media tag Burning Man as a “festival”, but the misnomer can actually cause harm. Slapping the same label on both experiences is convenient, but in the end the approach distorts the understanding of festivals and of Burning Man. This can be misleading to a virgin Burner. Having the wrong tent, or missing an important item like goggles or lights could be the difference between good times and certain struggle, so don’t take shortcuts when explaining what to expect at Burning Man. It’ll lead to a richer conversation, and it’ll serve the person you’re bringing into the community much better as well.
It’s also important to be mindful that the festival label is easy to include in a headline when the media reports the occasional, always tragic death of a participant. As raves become media targets, more and more are shifting language to distance themselves from the illegal underground and liken their brands to the well-established examples of the industry. But what happens when every experiential event is a festival? Granted, some festivals are incredible, but as more pop up around the world and more parties, raves and campouts become festivals, it becomes imperative we take more care in how we share Burning Man with the world beyond the playa.
We Need Terms With Intention
If we call Burning Man a festival, then — at least for some — that’s what it will be. It will take on the qualities of a festival, with all the advantages and limitations a festival would have. On the other hand, if more folks described it deliberately, in greater detail, it could transcend the boundaries of what a festival can be in the popular perception.
Terms change when they become obsolete. The term “festival” has lost its usefulness because when we apply it to describe Burning Man, the purpose of Burning Man is lost. Today terms are chosen carefully by media and leaders to paint a picture of our place in the world. Why shouldn’t you take the brush and express yourself with the same intention?
It won’t always be easy, and there may never be a perfect descriptor for the tossed salad of sensations that happens on playa, but you can always explain that Burning Man is like a festival the way that lightning is like a lightbulb. And you can always recount an unforgettable time in the dust, to explain what Burning Man was in that moment for you.
Starting off with the five words every Burner had to hear at least once.
“One time at Burning Man…”
Top image: Center Camp Burning Man 2011 Triptych Panel 2 by Patrick Moran