European Leadership Summit 2020 Online: Together No Matter the Distance

Out of care for the wellbeing of the community, the 2020 European Leadership Summit (ELS) in Tallinn was postponed. Instead of connecting in person on April 2-5, over 230 participants from 29 countries connected online for a mini-summit.

By April 4 2020, over three weeks had passed since the Estonian government declared the emergency situation, and it was collectively decided that the seventh Burning Man European Leadership Summit (ELS) wouldn’t happen as planned. On that day, April 4, we were supposed to be hanging out in a sauna with acoustic music and healing in the Estonian countryside with around 250 fellow Burner-minded leaders coming together from all over the world. Well, people make plans, Gods are laughing.

Like many of us, I was also thinking that a virtual happening could never come close to the experience of an actual embodied and sensorial gathering that I had been so much looking forward to, when passionately working as part of the Estonian organizing team here in Tallinn.

However, I have to admit, it was quite rewarding to finally change out of the leggings and the T-shirt I had been wearing for the past few weeks in quarantine solitude and into my Burner hat while in front of my computer screen. I was ready to tune in to the alternative version of the ELS — this was being human in the time of coronavirus, gathering virtually.

But what followed was actually far more rewarding than just a hook with a virtual show. It was also not simply about keeping the momentum of the Summit. ELS Online created a portal for connection — it was a gathering, which in these difficult circumstances that have very different impacts on each and every one of us, matters on a whole different level.

According to Iris “Mi’ao” Yee, the Head of Regional Network, it felt important to hold the ELS Online.

“We are living under conditions unprecedented during our lifetimes with the global COVID-19 pandemic and tightening of countries’ borders,” Iris said. “The work that our community organizers are doing is more needed than ever with the cancellation of Regional Events. It was important to offer this opportunity to connect and exchange ideas through this mini-online gathering.”

Meghan Rutigliano, ELS Event Director, Kadri Rinaldo. ELS Co-Lead from Tallinn and Youen “O’Malley” Perhirin talking about Mamihlapinatapai, a Temple for Nowhere 2021

Being Human and Embracing Our Superpowers Under the Same Sun

As we were warmly welcomed by Meghan Rutigliano, ELS Event Director, and Kadri Rinaldo, ELS Co-Lead from Tallinn, the value and the importance of this online gathering became immediately clear.

Kadri well pointed out that while Megs and the Burning Man Project staff are currently in San Francisco and Reno, and our Estonian Creative Space community crowd is here in Tallinn, we are all seeing the same sun at this very moment when looking outside our windows.

It is coming up early morning in San Francisco and at the same time slowly setting here in Tallinn, forging a metaphor of our physical distance across continents that still holds a shared human experience at this extraordinary moment in global history.

On behalf of the Estonian community, Kadri shared a wonderful story about the three superpowers: freedom, love and creativity. Sitting there like a beautiful sorcerer, she reminded us that freedom is about trusting the flow and letting go of compulsive actions, and that love is like a cup in our heart: when it is full, it overflows and effortlessly waters other hearts. Love also keeps a purpose and meaning to our creation.

Nowhere 2021 Temple design

Burning Man as a Force for Change

Next, Marian Goodell, the CEO of Burning Man Project, delivered a fascinating message on how we as Burners can create community-driven solutions during the pandemic and for the new world on the other side of it. Burner culture teaches us how to be resilient and how to creatively collaborate. She highlighted a few examples of Burners who have cleverly used their skills during the crises, such as organizing mask drives, or creating 3D-printed designs for the ventilators.

“As a community we are certainly well adapted to living and working in unique environments, whether its Black Rock City or the desert in Spain, where we need to move quickly to bring our community together and solve a problem,” said Marian. “Because we are usually living temporarily in unique locations that are forcing our innovation and community in which we take care of others, often before taking care of ourselves.”

Indeed, we are accustomed to reusing materials and fixing things with the supplies that we have at hand. We know how to work in the environment of scarcity. We know what we need to do when the storm hits. These skills and experiences further make Burning Man a force for change. In Marian’s words, it is on the verge of becoming a very useful, productive cultural movement in the midst of the global health challenge.

During the Q&A session with Marian, a participant asked what her biggest fear was. If you’d think she said it was cancelling the Black Rock City event, which at the time of ELS Online was not yet decided, it wasn’t. Rather, she shared her fears that the culture of Burning Man would get lost.

“That over the course of time, it gets misinterpreted and turned into, frankly, a commercial brand,” she said, thus reminding us about the deep treasures of the Burner culture.

Anssi Laurila, Finland Regional Contact, sharing about the Pre-Summit from Helsinki

Towards the Post-carbon Future

Marian’s empowering words were echoed by the other panelists Christopher Breedlove, Laura Day, and Zac Cirivello, who drew our attention to yet another global crisis we are inevitably facing.

They introduced us to the Burning Man 2030 Environmental Sustainability Roadmap. It is no surprise that Black Rock City’s total carbon footprint is worrisome — more people than ever are traveling by air and bringing more elaborate setups, all of which has an environmental cost.

The Environmental Sustainability Roadmap set three goals. The first extends the Principle of Leaving No Trace — but ideally, we would leave nothing at all! This would shift gears in the ways we prepare for the event and what we use during the event.

The second goal is to become regenerative. This would mean that for the ecology of the Earth, it would be better for Burning Man to exist than to not exist. Burning Man can be the prototype for creating regenerative solutions with a much wider impact — and that’s truly inspiring.

The third goal is an even more ambitious one: Burning Man will not only become carbon neutral but carbon negative, both as an organization, an event (Black Rock City) and as a culture. It’s fantastic to think about artwork that generates power or creates new water, food or shelter solutions. Such pursuits are already on the way at the Fly Ranch, a year-round rural incubator just north of BRC that aims to give a general public a vision of a post-carbon future.

Peter Mulvany sharing about Permanent Art at Borderland — Temple of Tokamak from Copenhagen

A Colorful Mosaic of Shiny Happy Faces

Not only had Megs elevated the vibe on the screen with her joyful brilliance in hosting, but her ever-changing sets of costumes evoked the familiar yet certainly missed playfulness of our gatherings. After a couple of great presentations about temples by Youen Perhirin (aka O’Malley) and Peter Mulvany, there was a movement break led by Rachel Rosen with qigong. So there I was — standing in front of my computer, chasing the imaginary skies and waters and turning the wheel with my stretches and movements.

The event culminated with breakout sessions where we all had a chance to join one of the ten discussions on a specific topic, ranging from how to co-create your DJ schedule and maintain community in the time of social distancing, to the geeky corner of Burning Man.

But when the official program was over, like with any Burner conference, the party began. DJ Ivo Naries, Burning Man Regional contact in Estonia, entertained us with a dance session right from the groovy heart of the Creative Space Tallinn. A colorful mosaic of shiny happy faces appeared on my Zoom screen and I was finally able to witness, greet and meet, dance and chat with all the people with whom we spent the past few hours of the conference. We’re distant, but together.

Click on gallery to see photo details

The Strengths of Our Imagined Community

While it is true, as Marian also mentioned, that Burners like connectivity, this is another reason why these days are not easy. But as much as the Burner community is a physical one — about embodied and sensorial connectedness, being together and co-creating together — it has steadily grown into what Benedict Anderson would probably have seen as a strong and wide imagined community. We know there are so many Burner events that normally take place around the world that we cannot attend with our physical presence.

Yet when we happen to meet some of these people or end up at any of these events, we instantly click. There are always more Burners who don’t make it annually to the Black Rock City than those who do. And yet when we see our friends packing their bags and taking up the pilgrimage, we feel with them. We might even join some moments of their journey later virtually.

The Burner community, to a degree, has always been about being together despite the distance. And this is what ELS Online 2020 perfectly captured, underlining our powerful virtual connectedness and inspiring the ways in which our collective resilience, optimism and creativity can contribute to the overcoming of the series of global challenges we are facing.


Top image: ELS 2020 speakers by Eva Reiska

About the author: Terje Toomistu

Terje Toomistu

Terje Toomistu (a.k.a Cece) is an Estonian anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. She received her PhD degree from the University of Tartu, where she currently holds an academic post. Her primary areas of research expertise are Indonesian gender and sexuality and the Soviet hippie movement. In both her academic and creative work, she often attends to the less visible and more marginal groups and practices, as well as to the various organizations of life, which hold promise of more sustainable, co-created and happy futures. She is also a member of the Burning Stories researchers’ collective.

4 Comments on “European Leadership Summit 2020 Online: Together No Matter the Distance

  • Draper says:

    >…shared her fears that the culture of Burning Man would get lost.

    What is the culture of Burning Man? It has its roots in TAZ culture but it’s so far from that now that it only resembles it on the surface. Now it just seems, ‘AAAHHH whatever!’. But it’s a good business.

    If it was me I’d be locked down in the bunker sleeping 1 hour a day, high on coffee and blue flake cocaine with 2 phones pressed against my head and 2 others ringing while trying to keep the business afloat. I’d be calling in the helicopters and launching missiles burning down forests eating burnt dead bodies veins in ma teeth… But then again, I’m a businessman. Q & A… fine whatever have fun.

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  • Dusk Rider says:

    Yuck…”shared her fears that the culture of Burning Man would get lost.” Not really that fearful though, as there are still no prohibitions regarding turn key/plug-n-play camps, jet-setters flying in, do-nothing/add nothing camps, etc., etc.
    At least the event was online so we didn’t have to pay airfare, food, lodging and expenses in order for our self-appointed Burning Man emissaries to have another nice holiday at our expense.
    I’ll believe that the BMP (BORG) really cares about the culture of Burning Man when all of the extraneous “outreach” crap stops and all the time, energy, (and now compromised) finances are focused laser-like on the cultural integrity of that thing in the desert.

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  • Hilda says:

    I think I get it now. The culture is about giving little presents and then cleaning up. And guys wear dresses and girls get their picture taken. Camping in RVs and riding bikes. This really does have the power to change the world. It’s almost like we should keep it a secret it’s so good. But if we can get the message out to everyone, the possibilities are endless. Oh, and it’s also about people working for free so there’s more money so some people can travel and tell everyone about it. Amazing!

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  • Superman says:

    Thanks for the great summary, Terje!

    Great photos and awesome work everybody involved.

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