At an Art Burn, There Can Be No Spectators

At one of my first Burns in 1993, I encountered Fireman Dale. Fireman Dale circled the fire after the Man fell, wearing his fireman’s jacket and fire retardant pants. In my mind, the jacket and pants told me he was in charge of that fire. He gave me a look that said, “Hey, you might be a bit too close, kid,” but then he dug into his pocket and handed me a fist full of fireworks! In my imagined backstory for him, they were confiscated fireworks, and he was disposing of them “safely.” Well, when a guy like this passes on fire safety tips, I listened. Was he in charge? Not sure. But one thing I know for sure was, he was participating!

In Black Rock City, when you stumble upon a burn or some other crazy project or event, you are not an audience member — you are part of the action. Dale’s look was telling me, “Hey, have fun, but don’t screw it up for everyone else.” Just like Fireman Dale, we are the show, the crew in charge, and the clean-up staff, all in one. There are unwritten rules to this remote desert autonomous zone. And like Fireman Dale walking the line and handing out fireworks, it falls to each of us to teach others how to survive and allow the event to thrive.

(Photo by Robert Bruce Anderson)

The Burning-Man-ism “No Spectators” really comes into play at a burn. The artist has worked hard for months to build the project, the burn crew has worked hard for weeks to prepare for the burn, and the perimeter crew has worked hard all day to ensure you know where the safe zone is.

When you come to watch the art burn, you are just as important a part of the crew as all those folks. If you see someone struggling or acting in an unsafe way, or if someone just catches your eye and seems like they might need some help, that is the time for you to Fireman Dale them. Give them the look, ask if they are okay, and find help if they are not. Give them a gift, some water and a sandwich, or perhaps some of your time to just sit with them. Your participation can make all the difference.

If we want to keep the burning in Burning Man, there can be no spectators. We are all responsible for each other in our city.

Here are some tips for helping those who need some help.

  • Make friends! Ask your neighbors where they’re from and how they came to be in this ephemeral city. If your neighbors are alone, include them in the group. If you’re alone, well, you aren’t anymore. Social connection is the gift that enables all the others.
  • Listen. Whatever kind of day your neighbors have had, listen to their stories. Cheer on the good ones, take in the tough ones, and let your neighbors know somebody out there cares about them.
  • Bring a little extra food and water, maybe a map and a mylar space blanket. They’re small things, but they may be the best gift of the Burn for someone who is hungry, thirsty, cold or lost.
  • If someone is having a really (really) bad day, get help. The perimeter volunteer in front of you is connected to all Black Rock City’s civic services, including medical and Rangers. They have people on call who can help someone through a difficult physical, emotional, or psychological experience, and all you need to do is ask them for help.
  • If someone next to you starts talking about rushing the fire, engage them. Tell them about what the burn means to you. Remind them that every single time we burn art, we are proving we can do this safely, and that every time someone behaves unsafely at a burn, it puts the future of Burning Man in jeopardy. If they listen, great! If they don’t, and they make moves towards the perimeter, point them out to a perimeter volunteer. Do not try to physically restrain that person. Point them out, and let the perimeter team take it from there.

In all of this, remember that although every burn is choreographed, nothing can really be planned. Every burn is unique. Whether this is your first burn or your twentieth, hold that sense of possibility close and share it with your neighbors.

(Top photo by Susan Becker)

About the author: DaveX


As a child Dave X sought out activities considered naughty by some, including his parents. In doing so he noticed that through the organization of others he could achieve greater levels of naughtiness. As he grew older Dave X was always looking behind the curtain to see who the wizard really was and how his mysterious machines worked. It was only natural that he would bring the traits of organization and mechanical curiosity together in his future work. In 1992 he was lured to the Black Rock Desert when he discovered a strange group called The Cacophony Society. Wonders and curiosities were discovered as he crossed to a new reality and he knew he had seen the future. This future was made of wood and stood tall and proud on the desert floor before taking flight to the spirits in a blaze of fire. In 1999 after several years of creating large-scale fire installations he realized that the use of fire and fuel had grown to a tipping point. He saw that the time had come to either self regulate its use or face outside regulation. Under the guidance of Crimson Rose he began his career with the Performance Safety Team and sought trainings and licensing so that he could create guidelines for the use of fire and fuels that would ensure the spectacle and ritual of their use while preventing their misuse. Dave X is now the Manager of the Fire Art Safety Team and holds several certifications for fuel management as well as being a licensed Pyrotechnic Operator.

One comment on “At an Art Burn, There Can Be No Spectators

  • G says:

    I hope the org pays attention to these comments here, and here goes . . . .

    After last year, and a few others in recent years, the Man Base takes way, way too long to collapse. Build it to go quickly. This will close the time window on someone getting psyched up to express themselves, shall we say extra radically.

    More serious notes aside, a fast burning and collapsing Man Base is good showmanship in our current age of short attention spans and instant gratification.

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