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.
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.
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.
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)