Community Views on #NotAFestival

As part of Project Citizenship, Burning Man has launched a campaign using #NotAFestival to differentiate Burning Man from festivals, and to emphasize that participants co-create the content and experience of the event. The idea is to show that there’s a whole civic life to Black Rock City; it’s not just about having fun.

To that end, we’ve encouraged people to go hashtag happy with Instagram pics; Halcyon has blogged and created a video; and Graham Berry recently wrote an article entreating friends not to let other friends call Burning Man a festival. There’s also more to come.

Graham’s post, in particular, generated a lot of commentary from the community. The debate oscillated from “Who gives a fuck about words? Just get on with it!” and accusations of too much navel-gazing to word-power advocates who either shunned the word festival or wanted to reclaim it.

A cultural problem requires collective action — and whole lotta conversation about it too. So we’re glad to see a desire for constructive discussion and the appearance of unsolicited posts from the community, like the ones below.

In these posts, each person has brought their own perspective on the word and the campaign, highlighting the range of takes on this topic. And as we move closer to the event and deeper into Project Citizenship, we encourage more of the community to share potential blog posts about the project.

But a quick editorial caveat: constructive debate we encourage; another podium for trolling, not so much. We also can’t post every single blog that you might send, but we’ll endeavour to share a representative breadth of ideas and discussion in the community.

Playa Visitor Turnstyle (Photo by Ales aka Dust To Ashes)

Burning Man is Not a Festival

By Beth Wright

The Burning Man organization has noticed a measurable change in the following four things over the last six years:

  • an increase in people unprepared to take care of themselves
  • an increase in vandalism
  • a decrease in volunteers
  • a decrease in civility.

I think the idea of even tracking these aspects of the event demonstrates its fundamental difference from the experience of a festival. An increase in people unable to take care of themselves.

While the playa may provide, you cannot expect it to. Radical Self-reliance means that you plan to care for yourself. All the courses I have ever taken, such as Neighborhood Emergency Response Team, Emergency Wilderness Training and First Aid, say you must first care for yourself before you can hope to help others. Even the airlines tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.

If you are tired, hungry, thirsty, sunburned or in need of a bandage and a hug, you do not have the capacity to help others effectively, and you might be in danger of becoming a liability yourself.

Be prepared to provide for your own needs, and to check in on your own state of being frequently. And, please, if you need help, ask. We won’t always be able to see that you’re in trouble, but we do always want to be able to help.

An Increase in Vandalism

There can be no trust without respect, and no community without trust. Radical Self-expression should always include respect for others, for their work and for their safety and security.

We’ve seen vandalism range from accidentally breaking a ship by climbing on it inappropriately to burning and tagging art. It also includes stealing street signs, chairs or other property, such as bikes, mistakenly seen as “communal”.

I think vandalism is often a result of believing, without empathy, “It’s Burning Man! There are no rules here. Radical Self-expression, man!”

If you see anything that looks like vandalism in progress, please don’t be afraid to speak up. The vandals may simply not know that ships are easily broken, chairs are not community property, and emergency services require street signs to find those in need of help.

A Decrease in Volunteers

Burning Man is a participatory community. We have all volunteered to be a part of this city and to contribute to its functionality in some way. Some of us also volunteer for the Burning Man organization, Earth Guardians, Lamplighters, Greeters or burn perimeters.

This is a call to participate through volunteering. Volunteer your skills. Volunteer your compassion. Volunteer your jokes and hugs and open heart. Volunteer to help others build, to help the desert survive, to help someone understand, or to help someone let go. Volunteer your silence or your song. Volunteer to stay late and clean up, to get up early and prepare, or to come and applaud. Volunteer your joy. Volunteer your fresh eyes or your old stories.

People talk about Burning Man as a “gifting culture”. Volunteering is a gift. It’s not about the objects; it’s all about the story.

A Decrease in Civility

This is the most interesting item on the list. Who tracks civility? Cities do. Communities do.

Civility should be the baseline. It doesn’t mandate empathy, or compassion or generosity. It’s simply politeness and courtesy. It’s the recognition of the other as a person who breathes the same air and walks the same earth as you. We all carry our own burdens. The least we can do is be polite to one another, and maybe see where it goes from there.

But I also think we can try to do better. Be compassionate. Be generous. Smother that asshole with kindness. Protect yourself and your family, and when you’re safe, go out into the world and play.

Burning man is not a festival. It is a participatory event. If you don’t participate, if you come in only as a spectator, you won’t get anything unexpected out of it. It will be simply a festival for you.


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

Words Don’t Just Have Meaning; We Give Them Meaning

By Danni Dalton

Burning Man is a festival. So is every Regional Burn. So is Mardi Gras and Carnival. So is Holi in India, and Ohum in Africa, and Mimuna in Morocco, and the Buddhist Ghost Festivals in East Asia, and I could go on, but you probably get the idea.

There are hundreds of thousands of religious festivals across the globe, thousands of secular festivals, and there have been more festivals lost and forgotten to the annals of time than there are annual public events in practice today.

In Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, Alessandro Falassi defines festival:

“In the social sciences, festival commonly means a periodic celebration composed of a multiplicity of ritual forms and events, directly or indirectly affecting all members of a community and explicitly or implicitly showing the basic values, the ideology, and the worldview that are shared by community members and are the basis of their social identity.”

Festival is a broad category that includes a multitude of experiences, not all of which are positive. It’s just a structure for social interaction; it doesn’t define the content of those interactions. What sets Burning Man apart from other kinds of curated festivals, isn’t the ingredients. It’s how those ingredients manifest and express themselves.

Western-Centric Argument

Here’s my central problem with Graham Berry’s argument: it’s a Western-centric argument that fails to see beyond the scope of the privileged, predominantly white, for-profit events that are the capitalist contribution to global culture. There is more to the concept of festival than what we see through the gaze of a commercialized culture, hell-bent on selling ticket holders a good time with a side of fashion.

I agree with Mr. Berry in one respect: words do have power. And I understand the desire to distinguish Burning Man from those other painfully consumerist and hopelessly commercialized events that go by the moniker festival.

A range of different uses for the word actually requires a higher level of intentionality and personal responsibility from Burners than simply picking a new word to hide behind. It requires us to really think about what we mean to communicate instead of depending on the other person to be like us enough to just understand.

It would be so satisfying to throw the word away, and call ourselves something different, something that sets us above and beyond all those other events. But we would be doing more than just throwing away an inconvenient set of associations; we would be affirming that the hollow experiences sold at curated events are all that is festival instead of just a part.

A False Sense of Superiority

Furthermore, the very elements of commercialization and party attitude that Mr. Berry is trying to distance himself and Burner Culture from, do exist at Burning Man. They may not be part of the Burner ethos, or what its creators and hosts intended, but they are there.

Throwing away the word festival and calling Burning Man something else won’t remove those elements from the event. But it does create a false sense of superiority surrounding Burning Man that actually makes it harder to manage and address the presence of these problematic elements.

How can we defend our society from the commercial attempts to commodify every aspect of American life when we abandon our language to those that have appropriated it for profit?

There is nothing traditional about the commercialization of public events in America. The normalization of for-profit festivals, performances and public gatherings is distinctly a part of Western progress, distinctly new in the evolution of popular culture, and distinctly weird on the global and historical scale of human development.

Reclaiming Our Words

Words don’t just have meaning, we give them meaning. Advertising and marketing agencies understand this diabolically well and they will continue to steal and appropriate the language of human interaction and meaning for their own purposes, no matter how many words we abandon to their headlines.

Those headlines will just change to reflect the new nomenclature, and in a few years it’ll be a new word on the chopping block of things we can no longer say. If we want to keep our language intentional, we have to occupy it, with intentionality. We have to accept being misunderstood initially so that we can explain what the other side is missing.


Top photo: Bliss Dance by Marco Cochrane (Photo by Rick Egan)

About the author: Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons

Jane Lyons (a.k.a Lioness) believes it takes a special kind of crazy to drive the foundation years of a Regional Burn, and she classes herself among those many crazy dreamers and (over)doers who are sweating it out around the Regional Burn globe. Since her first Nevada Burn in 2009, Jane has been knee-deep in the development of Australia's Burning Seed and its community. She built and managed Seed's Communications Team for many years, kickstarted Melbourne Decompression and ran a range of other local events. But her Burner communities and collaborations stretch beyond the confines of her country. She helped build Temple of Transition in 2011; worked at Media Mecca in 2010; has worked on other big art projects on and off playa (including the Temple for Christchurch); and has run theme camps and built art at Nowhere, Kiwiburn and Italian Burning Weekend. She now spends her time supporting Burning Man's Communications Team in San Francisco.

17 Comments on “Community Views on #NotAFestival

  • Susan says:

    Okay, but just make sure I get the fireworks show on Saturday night.

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  • Dreamer says:

    Vandals destroyed MANY portable toilets last year everywhere. Ripped the doors off!!! Yuck!!! Vandals and thieves are disrespectful and insulting to the citizens of the City. If you see vandalism happening try to take pictures, safely, and contact law enforcement. Vandals need to be busted and escorted out and banned for ever.

    It’s not a festival. This is Burning Man!!!

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  • Taters says:

    I’m confused by the basic premises of Beth’s essay. Of course Burning Man is a festival. And I’m sure those mainstream festivals don’t encourage vandalism or underpreparedness from attendees.

    She’s really trying to say something else: that Burning Man is not a festival for spectators.

    Also, I’m curious how “civility” is tracked and measured.

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  • barry says:

    I respectfully disagree… Burning Man is indeed a festival…… there are many kinds of festivals

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  • Frosty says:

    Call it what you will, what makes Burning Man different from most events is that Burning Man is what we make it.
    Most festivals involve an expectation that you pay your money and you will be entertained – music acts being the most common form.
    Burning Man provides an infrastructure – a field of play if you will – and the participants create the rest. Passivity is likely to yield nothing.

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  • Dustin says:

    Yay! More thought police! Tell us what to say! Tell us what to think! Tell us how to have fun!

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  • JV says:

    It’s a participant-created festival, for fuck’s sake. No need for lofty rationalizing that it’s something else. I agree it’s different than other festivals, unique even. But it’s a festival, nonetheless. And fuck the “predominantly white” critique.

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  • Pooh Bear says:

    The argument about what to label Burning Man is masking the actual issue being discussed. The problem that is being addressed is people treating Burning Man as they would Coachella or EDC. It is a clash of cultures. At a typical festival the ticket holder shows up to be entertained by someone else and takes no responsibility for their impact on their environment. MOOP is increasing at Burning Man. Spectatorship is increasing at Burning Man. Personal responsibility is on the decline. This is an effort to halt that decline and get back to the principles that make Burning Man, whatever you call it, unique. Don’t get caught up in the semantics of it all.

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    • JV says:

      That’s a good point.

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    • HoneyBee says:

      Well said.
      To me, the word festival implies celebrating a specific thing/idea/event: garlic festival, music festival, rhododendron festival. Burning Man does just the opposite. It creates a stage where each of us become the object of celebration. In celebrating each individual, we must all remember to be responsible for the experience, the trash, the respect, and the effort that goes into any community or event.

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      • Lans Ellion says:

        Pooh Bear hits the nail on the head! Discussing: “is Burning Man a festival?” is not the actual issue. Instead, the concern is that burning man is being portrayed and understood as a festival similar to Coachella. Thus, people attend expecting one experience and not being prepared for the reality. This causes conflict at burning man as the event loses the ability to maintain its participation structure–which is what truly makes burnign man what it is–as participation fades.

        I imagine this problem similar to someone who shows up at a soup kitchen expecting a free lunch and not realizing they were invited to help serve the needy. They may walk in the door and eat some food, but do nothing to contribute back and not be prepared for the work they have agreed to do.

        The problem burning man faces is that the glamorous exciting parts are what the outside world experiences through videos and stories: the artwork, the style, the music, the lights. But, outsiders also need to understand the community and the volunteering that go into the event. This is understandable, burning man is full of beauty and excitement and all of us want to share those things with others. But, if we don’t share the work, the commitment, and community that create burning man, others will not understand the event.

        We all need to be better at showing that burning man is like any other city, although it is an extraordinary place with so much to do, we all still have a day job at the burn. It’s just that your day job at burning man might involve handing out shots, spanking, creating art, yelling through a megaphone, giving a massage, or lighting things on fire.

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  • Gerflash says:

    Festival, shmestival. Now, the state of Nevada sees it as a festival so it can treat it as a cash cow and slap a tax on each attendee, even though each attendee is there to entertain as well as be entertained. Seeing Burning Man as a City rather than as a Festival seems to me to be a much healthier approach for civic responsibility on the part of each of its citizens. When I was much younger and first visited New York City, I saw the pamphlets there with the headline “New York is a Summer Festival.” And later, “..a Fall/Winter/Spring Festival.” Do they still say that? NYC can be fun, but a Festival? New York is a “Festival” like THIS is a Festival, and it’s swingin’. NYC and BRC are both best defined as cities. Except that BRC is the world’s most intensely concentrated city, entertainment-wise; what other city of 70,000 can you spend a frenetic week in and when you’re through, you’ve been able to soak up maybe 5% of it at most? US festivals are much closer relatives of TV: Entertainers and spectators. That in no way describes Burning Man.

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  • Manikin says:

    Interesting point on civility. A group of us were sat around the fire at Hotel California last year, when a drunk guy sat on a shipping container behind us started to throw large pieces of firewood over our heads and into the fire. People repeatedly asked him to stop as – being drunk or just a shit thrower – he was narrowly missing people. He told us to piss off and just kept quoting that the ticket says you might die, so it was fine and we should just deal with it. Lovely behaviour.

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  • Ruben says:

    Sorry, it’s festival!! Even the use of the word “Art” to help promote BM to some other category is out of order as the majority of “so called art” mearly stands out at “craft” …at best. Maybe the fact that no big artistic achievement has been accomplish at this festival gives itself a chance to promote itself out of the terminology of festival. Maybe then I would pay the premium price to attend but not until that happens. Radical self expression works with art but not craft. Let’s not water down art.

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    • Peace says:

      Hmmm…I was wondering who it was that gets to decide what art is…now I know…it’s Ruben. Good to know. That frees me up from the exhausting task of having my own experiences and opinions.

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  • Dr. Baron von Realz, Esq. says:

    First of all if you think it is a festival you are doing it wrong. Each individual is required to be burning man. You yes you are burning man you should feel at least a bit uncomfortable and stepping out of comfort zone at the burn. Take down the wall around you expose yourself, for some this may be taken literally. As long as you are not harming yourself or others do whatever you have to do to embrace your fear hold it, feel it ,cry scream, run around naked with your hands waving in the air become the fool. We will cheer you on, hug you if you want, mock and ridicule if you want, but most of all we will give you unconditional love.

    I gotta disagree with a “a decrease in Civility”. Burning man has always been uncivil from the beginning. The uncivil assholes are the sriracha in this caldron we cook up. Yes you may get hazed a bit and your feelings might get hurt. I know I did my first burn then it was explained to me not everyone wants to be, and some time unable to be, politically correct. Yes sometimes at burn the uncivil are humbled as are the politically correct. I leaned to not take it personal and now some of my favorite burners are unsurly uncivilized asshole.
    )'(
    “It is not a festival it is an enchantment.”
    – Dr. Baron von Realz, Esq.

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