Friends Don’t Let Friends Call Burning Man “a Festival”

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.’”

Windows and Doors to Playa (Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

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.

Identity Awareness Union. (Photo by Mark Nixon)

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

About the author: Graham Berry

Graham Berry

Where vibes are high, you can bet Graham Berry won’t be far. When he’s not volunteering to build big art or eating fire, he’s usually chronicling the experiences created at events that were inspired by the community and ethos in Black Rock City. With his trusty Masters of Communications from the University of Southern California and his Instagram moniker @FestivalWriter, Graham tirelessly works to share the stories of the creative heroes of the day. Through sheer dedication and an iron will, he fills his daytime hours generating editorial content as the voice of Do LaB. Outside the office, he moonlights as a freelancer for various culture and events focused publishers like Fest300, LA Weekly and Burn After Reading Magazine. He has also written extensively on the powerful culture that Burning Man catalyzed in festivals peppered throughout the default world, including Lucidity, Enchanted Forest, Envision and Lightning in a Bottle.

46 Comments on “Friends Don’t Let Friends Call Burning Man “a Festival”

  • Tiki says:

    Bravo, Graham for an impressive article. You articulated so well there is no label for Burningman. At the very least it is an opportunity for life-transforming experiences

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  • Alina says:

    The outsiders call it a festival! Since they can feel the vibe they can’t relate to it!

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  • Hank Raymond says:

    I recall seeing a big sign as I approached the playa road that says, “Burning Man Festival one mile ahead” or something like that.

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  • Nexus says:

    Well said. Thank you

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  • Mehl W. Renner says:

    I call Burning Man simply an event. An event can be different things to different people. Some would define it as a festival and they would be wrong. I consider it a spiritual event that is all about adult play and creativity guided by important principles.

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  • Willie SaySo says:

    It’s a pilgrimage, a feast for the needs, an orgasm of resources, the largest interactive canvas in the world, an open-source Illuminati, the greatest prank ever played.

    It ain’t no festival. Get it right.

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  • squirt says:

    i’m one of the founders of camp envy, the largest theme camp not on playa. we are a community of participants who are not able to make it to the desert but still want to contribute, and to feel like we’re part of the experience. we watch the live feed and listen to bmir from home – but that sentence doesn’t do us justice at all. i’d like to share what i just posted to our group:

    ‘before the burning man website was updated, it used to describe burning man as an experiment in a temporary society. that always stuck with me as the best acceptable option for a succinct description. now it just says “burning man isn’t your usual festival,” which is pretty contrary to this article but moving on….

    this concept of nomenclature or terminology is super interesting from camp envy’s perspective. (and this is the general ‘you’ here…) if you’re in ce, you didn’t buy a ticket, so there are no expectations about what will be provided in exchange. you’re also not physically providing anything to the event itself – i.e. art, big infrastructure, a theme camp for passer-by’s to stop for a drink, a haunted house, etc. but the 2k+ of us (give or take) are participating around the clock, just like the other 70k people in the desert. in 2011 i busted out my dusty tent in my living room and hung out in it, in [the camp envy chat room], all day. we dress up at home. we probably put on party lights. we interact with bmir and thereby anyone tuned in to bmir. we organize video-feed tributes and parties on playa for nutters* at home to dance with their campmates.

    burning man is a multi-faceted gemstone, each one comprised of the man, the temple, other big art, other little art, other hidden art, other art that’s an altar someone made in their tent, the ritual, the spiritual, the population, the smiles, the feeling of home, the open, giving hearts, the willingness to help out, the self expression, the ability to go balls out like you can’t at home, the individual responsibility, the individual experience, holyshitthislistcouldgoonforever —

    camp envy is its own glorious little facet of this experience, of this massive piece of collaborative art that is burning man. i’ve definitely never heard of a festival having such a strong, live, real-time following from afar.

    thank you for reading this novela. i’m putting myself to bed now.

    love,
    squirt’

    *in 2009, the live feed was on a fixed camera that spun around in a circle preeeeetty much all day. there was a nut missing from some box on the tower to which the camera was affixed. thusly…. we had all lost a nut. and became nutters.

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  • Piko Von Mitchellstein says:

    Does it really matter what Burning Man is called? Just go and participate. Don’t let words hang you up.
    It’s a festival of life. It’s a gathering. It’s a party beyond all parties. It’s camping in the desert. It’s all of the above, and more, or less, depending on your point of view and interpretation.

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  • PeterHansen says:

    Words do create reality! Calling it as festival categorizes it with traditional (for-profit) music festivals, etc, and will attract an audience instead of participants.

    Hoooowever, elsewhere on the BM website the f-word is used to describe the event: “Burning Man isn’t your usual festival. It’s a vibrant participatory metropolis generated by its citizens”. In other words: It’s a festival.

    http://burningman.org/event/

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  • No Fucks Gibbon says:

    criticism with no offered ‘superior’ alternative.
    “burnier than though” in its most common form.
    i find the moniker ‘festival’ to be adequately appropriate for MANY peoples’ experiences. is it more than that? to some, sure! but as your term becomes more and more generalist, say an “event” or “gathering” it may become less incorrect but also less useful/descriptive.

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  • Rae says:

    “Friends Don’t Let Friends Call Burning Man “a Festival”

    But, but… it is! It has morphed into a festival in the ugliest sort of way. One need only look about at the turn key camps, the Twitter selfies, the beautiful models with their sultry poses standing next to a sleek black helicopter at the airport to see that the event is is the embodiment of the Coachelification of what was once a very great, dynamic one-of-a-kind event.

    Pretend all you want but the fact remains we are seeing the infancy of yet another spectator event.

    Don’t agree? Have a look at this very fine, sober assessment of what things have become: http://www.burn.life/blog/burning-mans-culture-is-in-danger

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  • Rae says:

    Any particular reason that my post was erased? No invective, no insults, no slandering, no cursing. Just an opposing point of view that runs counter to your let’s-everyone-get-along piece. And now it’s nowhere to be seen.

    Really, what the heck is up with that?

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  • 17-Year Burner says:

    As a writer, I waste lots of my time (and that of others) worrying about words. Semantics. Nomenclature. Etcetera.

    And yet I find this post far too precious for its own good. The writer is trying to force the English/American language to be what they want. They’re offended that the evil mainstream media uses the word “festival.” They’re offended that regular ol’ people, outsiders, not cool Burners, might use a word from the boring, normal lexicon to described their uber-special Playa experience.

    Some definitions of festival:

    “a day or period of celebration, typically a religious commemoration.”
    “an annual celebration or anniversary.”
    “an organized series of concerts, plays, or movies, typically one held annually in the same place.”

    “a day or time of religious or other celebration, marked by feasting, ceremonies, or other observances.”

    It’s a fine word, with a fine history and wide swath of contemporary colloquial applications. Please, step off your high horse and have a festive drink or something. “We are too good and big and interesting to be called ‘festival’, like all those other meaningless little ‘festivals’ in the world…” this pompous attitude suggests a hell of a lot of exclusivity. Let Burning Man be inclusive. Let it not fear the word “festival.”

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    • Lady Jane says:

      Hear, hear!!!

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    • Pirate Nick says:

      Yes, it is a fine word to describe it. It is quite festive! By the definitions you gave it is really those other ‘festivals’ not living up to the word that is the problem. These are just words people look for to describe it. The thing that is different about BM is that non-burners/non-festival goers don’t have the immense curiosity about those other ‘festivals’ When they ask those questions is when that phrase in the article (‘this one time at BM’) separates it from the others. Those conversations don’t occur after someone says they went to Cochella, Bonaroo… whatever. These conversations will happen no matter what it is being called in the ‘media’ Who cares what some article in the NY post called it! Focus on the conversations that occur & perhaps that future virgin’s curiosity.

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    • The Wizard says:

      It’s also worth noting that words’ meaning completely change depending on what other words you use them with. For example, I think it was George Lakoff who observed that women could be in the category of “mother” whether they kept the child or put it up for adoption — but that once the modifier “unwed” was put before “mother,” the resulting set no longer included mothers who’d put their children up for adoption (in most people’s minds).

      I think it’s fair to call Burning Man an “arts festival,” but context is everything — it’s definitely *not* a music festival.

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    • Hugh Jass says:

      yep. I found it a little too self-serious. Also, it might seem a little less like a festival if it did not cost an arm and a half of a leg (not to mention hours in a non-moving car) just to get in.

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  • andrei says:

    This is perfect example how a culture matures. Instead of reaching for a common goal that leads to overcoming differences and unites people, a mature culture have already achieved some of the primary goal (creating safe space of a sort), has been recognized and noticed by the outside world.
    Now its stops being about unity and starts being about possibilities. there are so much resources, both physical and social that people get lost in there dreams. Now its about standing out, and establishing rules. Don’t do that, don’t do this, don’t call it a festival, don’t even think of calling it a party. Well dear friends who are obsessed with the high and eternal, as provided by the principle of radical expression, I have 2 words for you. FUCK OFF! Exactly, I went for more then few years, and i will tell you dam straight, its a festival. And if anything is wrong with the name its the “Man” part. Burning Effigy festival would be the most correct name if you ask me. But see, the main difference between me and noble high life cultural warriors, is that i will never tell you to call it same way that i do. I will never force beliefs on you. Let burning man be a festival for those who what it to be. Only by allowing all labels and names can the real mental labeling be challenged. not by restrictions or controls. this is a classic issue in maturing cultures vs brand new once. There is already distinction burners (aka aryan race), and the others who just come and cause the trouble.

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    • Dustin says:

      Here here!! As a friend once said: “Any sentence that begins with the words ‘The true spirit of burningman is…’ I don’t need to hear the end of.

      Real communities grow and evolve. They aren’t developed and built and managed. Stop trying so hard to TELL us what burning man isn’t. SHOW us what it is.

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    • R. R. says:

      The event grew and evolved a long time ago. At least ten years ago by my personal estimates. Thriving, reckless and wild (all in a good way), it matured to the point that like all good things it became too precious not to be noticed by the curious and the uninitiated. I believe now that the event has reached a point of stasis as more and more spectators arrive to vicariously suck off the creative energy of the (seemingly) ever diminishing minority. In fact, perhaps ‘stasis’ is the wrong term. Decline and decay are probably more resonant terms as I see the streaming images of the entitled snowflakes slumming around the playa looking for the next cool thing to commercialize or appropriate rather than creating it. These are the folks who’ve diminished the event for the others who’ve been squeezed out because of the concerted efforts to bring in without making any effort to acculturate them. These are the new Visigoths who’ve scaled the walls to scour that which has become fetid and rotting.

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  • Ash says:

    Damn, someone need to tell the Black Rock Arts Foundation about this pronto. The “About” section at their web site (http://blackrockarts.org/about) starts with the sentence “The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) was founded by several of the partners who founded and produce Burning Man, AN ANNUAL ARTS FESTIVAL IN THE NEVADA DESERT.”

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  • Cranston Snord says:

    This message brought to you by the Burning Man Thought Police. Seriously? Perhaps more time should be spent creating and facilitating art and less time naval gazing about what is and isn’t the proper way to refer to it. Burning man isn’t curated? You’ve heard of theme camp placement, the Artery, and the DMV, right? They have more rules and hoops than most art shows or commercial festivals I’ve been part of.

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  • Blu says:

    It’s an experiment on the gathering of humanity

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  • “Festival” is just a lazy 2-dimensional way of describing what’s much more than just a week-long event. Burning Man is a transformational experience & an experimental participatory community.

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  • Melissa Willoughby says:

    Hi- I wholeheartedly agree it is the farthest thing from what most people consider a festival to be. I’m one of those people who “educates” others when they call it a festival. However, after having another one of those educational moments at my fourth burn, I did get back to default to find my collection of past Survival Guides proudly titled “Burning Man Festival”.
    So, might be grand if it isn’t named a festival. :)
    Little Wing, Seattle

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  • Trilo Byte says:

    I’ll see your “you’re doing it wrong” blog post and raise with a “you’re doing it wrong” comment. Sorry (not sorry), I’ve been calling it an art festival, or an arts and culture festival for longer than you’ve been playing an authority on the pro-am festival blogger circuit… and will continue to do so. If you feel that’s damaging to your (or anyone else’s) worldview, expand your horizons and open your mind.

    If you or Burning Man are seriously concerned about getting lumped in with more generic festivals, perhaps they should consider publishing fewer posts from festival bloggers.

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  • Dr. Bungee says:

    It’s much more fun being in the show, than just watching it. Participation is what makes BM different. I remember a big “No Spectators” sign at center camp a long time ago. It’s people giving life to their creative ideas, and sharing them for everyone’s enjoyment. When folks stop doing that, it becomes another ordinary “festival”.

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  • epiphanystarlight says:

    After seeing many pictures of the trash heaps left at “festivals” it’s dangerous to give the festival litterbugs the idea that such behavior is acceptable at our event.
    I resonate with Tucker Gumber’s observation, and confused by so many attendees not understanding the distinction.

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  • Some Seeing Eye says:

    Burning Man is a laboratory in which individual and group experiments take place.

    It was started by a merge of the Cacophony Society and beach burns.

    Each individual has a thesis “can I do” and “I think other people will respond by.”

    It also has elements of social sculpture.

    If it is not a festival, then it and all the regionals should be removed from the Fest300 website. When will that happen? If it is not a festival, then we don’t need the Rockstar Librarian guide at all, right?

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    • Pooh Bear says:

      I think most Burners would be thrilled if Burning Man and the regionals were pulled from Fest300 and other sites like it. What do we get from that exposure but grief and cultural problems.

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  • James sasso says:

    Only a cult member fool thinks a party with 24 hour bars and 24 hr noise rave music isn’t a festival. Signs on the way to Brc say FESTIVAL

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  • JV says:

    Says right at the bottom of this here website, Burning Man Project. That’s what I remember sticking out for me when I first heard about it in the early 90s, and I still really like that nomenclature. It suggests something in progress, in flux and requiring team work. A project is something you can join, not attend.

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  • Kate says:

    Great article Graham!

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  • redBone says:

    I call it a dusty shit hole

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  • eagle says:

    Call it anything you want, its Burning Man, and you either know what it is or you don’t, and you never will if you dont go. I would call it a Festival of the Mind. You could call it the What The Festival, or WTF, because every 30 minutes you think WTF! (In india you think WTF every 5 minutes! If you dont get BM tickets, go to Varanassi, India, where burning man gets real)

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  • Apar Patel says:

    Does anyone have an extra ticket?

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  • Chuck says:

    I think Burning Man is the culmination and height of human evolution. It’s the most amazing event in human history founded by the most amazing people ever to be born.

    It makes all philosophies, intellectuals, and religions pale!

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  • I love that Georgie Boy was seen today, he would be so proud.

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  • the real burning man says:

    Settle down, word-haters…

    The “About” section at their web site starts with the sentence “The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) was founded by several of the partners who founded and produce Burning Man, AN ANNUAL ARTS FESTIVAL IN THE NEVADA DESERT.”

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  • Pooh Bear says:

    The answer to the culture crisis is teaching. Experienced Burners taking newbies under their wing and teaching them the ropes. Teaching them about personal responsibility and community spirit. The big problem is with the bros and the festival kids who treat Burning Man like EDC. First, no MC should be paid beyond their expenses. They should be gifting their art. We sometimes cover other artists expenses, so I think that is fair, but if anyone is getting paid to appear beyond expenses, they shouldn’t be there. Every MC should start their set by talking about the principles. Particularly personal responsibility and leave no trace. If they did that, it would go a long way reconciling the festival kids with the Burners. The Bros are just a waste of human flesh but every society has a few of those.

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