The part of Burning Man culture represented by Burners Without Borders is having no trouble knowing what to do in this moment of widespread crisis. They’re diving right in, self-organizing, creating community led efforts, and helping and inspiring people at once. This is what they trained for.
The rest of Burning Man culture? On the other hand? No, that seems to really be struggling.
How do we be together if we can’t get together? How do we celebrate in a satisfying way from a distance? How do we make experiences participatory and immediate when we’re behind a screen? How can we be authentic in a time of social breakdown? Does Radical Inclusion include racists? Do we need a new digital platform?
Burning Man culture seems to be having an identity crisis right now. And that’s okay. Who isn’t? Shit’s bad out there. There’s nothing wrong with admitting it. In fact, admitting how it feels is a much better option than smiling and pretending that everything’s fine and we can make everything better by being wacky and quirky.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to develop design elements that can successfully create “Burning Man” experiences across video conferences. You can read about that here. But is the very effort to create such experiences window dressing? An affectation of the privileged during a time of crisis? If so, should Burning Man simply become “Burners Without Borders” for a while, dedicating itself to social good? If not … what good is the part of Burning Man that was always an aesthetic movement, to the extent it wasn’t pranks and fuckery, for its own sake? And what is it called upon to do now?
Burning Man can’t tell you that. It has never been able to tell you why you should want to do Burning Man, or why this culture should be relevant to you. That is, and always has been, about what you need in life.
But here’s the answer I’m discovering.
Caveat From The Block
I live in an apartment building on a block of converted houses. I don’t really have a yard, but I’ve been spending a lot of time on my front steps. A few weeks ago, sick at heart and desperate to self-soothe, I sat on those steps and started singing. It eased my troubles, so the next day I did it again. And the day after that.
A few days later, a neighbor rolled up on a skateboard, stopping eight feet away. I’ve lived here for almost 10 years, and I don’t know my neighbors.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m Rob. I don’t know your name, but, do you know everybody here is talking about you?”
“Oh … good things, I hope.”
“Are you kidding me? Everybody was texting each other the last couple days ‘have you heard that guy? Do you know who he is?’”
Since that day, literally every time I sit on my steps, somebody in the neighborhood waves to me. Says hello to me. Occasionally stops me when I’m walking to tell me that what I’m doing breaks the monotony and the fear with something beautiful, and they’re grateful.
I am more connected to my neighbors now than I have ever been. Not because I tried to entertain them – let’s be clear, I was singing outside because it was the only way I could think of to express and ease my own suffering – but because that is what authentic self-expression in a time of crisis can do. My attempt to self-soothe helped soothe others, and connected us.
When Lightning Strikes it Clears the Air
Another day, more recently, a friend came to sit across the sidewalk from me, while I sat on my front steps, so that I could have someone to talk to in person…even at a distance. She was suffering even more than I was. Too much time alone, in one place, feeling too useless as the world shook and marched – and what was there to do about it?
Suddenly, after a period of sitting in silence, inspiration hit. “I’m going to give you a quest,” I told her, and I outlined an activity that combined three of her favorite things to do – gifts that she will delight in giving people – with one activity of unusual emotional vulnerability for her.
She gasped at the idea. Tears came to her eyes thinking about it…and in that moment, it was as if lightning had struck and illuminated our world and all the miasma and helplessness and fright we had been experiencing vanished in its light.
It was glorious. For me, the effect faded in a few hours. But for her, she has a quest to undertake now. Something she finds meaningful and fulfilling, and maybe it will last. This could take weeks. Or longer.
Tragedy is Dehumanizing. Our Art Humanizes.
All of the successful art events I have produced since the pandemic began have been very simple affairs – just people, video conferencing software, and an idea. We didn’t need anything more, and when it works it works beautifully. No platform, no VR, no tech beyond the very basic. But these experiences, that I just described, are even simpler. Just a guy singing in public at a time when he is hurt and frightened, and a friend trying to help someone by giving her a quest.
But they were pure, uncut, Burning Man. And they mattered. Because at a time when it is easy to be flattened to the plane of our misery, these experiences each, in their way, made the people involved feel multidimensional. Because the combination of art and authentic connection does that. And we need that. Not “instead of” activism and community engagement and civic actions, but alongside.
Burning Man’s “Burners Without Borders” aspect has come into its own. Burning Man’s art culture is having an identity crisis because we are trying to fit a time when we could build a vast city of art and whimsy in the desert into a time when neighbors need to sing to one another and offer deeply personal gifting quests.
The best compliment I ever got about one of my small weekly art events was that it served as an anchor in time. Time, right now, tends to vanish, to run together in indistinguishable waves that leave you asking “what was I doing?” And so drains our passion and capacity. Good art events recreate the sense that this moment is happening, that it will not – cannot – be absorbed into an endless passing of indistinguishable hours. And so gives us passion and capacity for whatever we want to achieve.
Before, Burning Man was a liminal space and time that we were trying to access. Now, all the whole world is a kind of purgatory, and we need experiences that can anchor us passionately in the moment. Which, it turns out, experiences of “Burning Man” can do. Before, we were creating a kind of bubble we could enter. Now, we are popping the bubble we are stuck in. Both are Immediacy – but we are coming at them from different directions, because the world is different.
There’s no formula – in fact, this is the antithesis of formulaic. But Burning Man has always created a relationship between “fun” and “authenticity.” Either fun could lead to authenticity, or authenticity could lead to fun. But when you sever that relationship – creating fun that never gives people a chance to truly be honest about what their world is like, or creating opportunities to share which demand that people be deadly earnest instead of eventually giving them a path to joy – you lose the ability to create Burning Man experiences.
I think, in our panic to immediately try to build everything back the way it was, only virtual, only with more people, only with political relevance…we have lost sight of just how basic what we do is when it works. The bells and whistles we developed with Black Rock City were amazing, but they were never the point.
We can develop all that again, but we have to start with the world we’re in. With where we, and the people around us, really are. When we do that, we can create experiences that bring joy back to our lives, even in the midst of tragedy, and that gives us the capacity to do whatever we think needs to be done in the world.
It doesn’t need to be complicated. It never did.
Top Image: Mariposita by Chris Carnabuci (photo by Mark Nixon)