Dave X Interview: The One Common Ritual That Defines Us

Burning Man — the event in Black Rock City and a global culture — emerged from one ritual: the gathering of friends, old and new, around a fire.

There won’t be 80,000 of us circling around the Man this year as he erupts in flame. But there may be just as many gathering in small groups to celebrate or burn an effigy as we mark Burn Night on the Saturday before Labor Day.

This year the circle gets a little larger, as Burners around the world co-create a global, 24-hour live streamed Burn Night. And so continues the evolution of our community, from one fire, to thousands of Burn Night celebrations, each drawing new people and spiraling off their own variations, communities and rituals.

Dave X, Burning Man Project’s Fire Safety Team Manager, has been working closely with folks from the Man Krew to plan Burn Night: Live From Home — a global, round-the-clock Man Burn created by YOU. He’s encouraging every one of us — even YOU — to build an effigy and plan your own small celebration on Burn Night.

We spoke with Dave X during Burn Week 2020 about why the fundamentals of Burn Night — the building, the planning, and the celebration — are the keys to building community and cultivating Burning Man culture.

K: In a year without Black Rock City, why is it important to gather the community around a Burn Night ritual?

Dave X: “If you look at the event and all the things that happen within the event or leading up to it, you’ve got your packing stuff at home, you’ve got the drive to the event, you’ve got the Gate, the Greeters. Then you’ve got setting up your camp. And there’s any number of rituals and traditions that you cover within your event week.

“But generally everybody’s week is focused around the Man Burn. It’s the center of the city, a wooden structure that provides navigation. It’s really the center of the experience. And if you look back throughout time, before there were any of those other traditions, there was the original ritual of going to the beach with a couple of friends. Larry built the wooden man, they said ‘we’ll eat some food, drink some wine and burn the Man.’

“They lit it, other people came, and it formed a community. Just like any other campfire throughout the history of [humanity], it drags in people and is the center of any community. The sharing of food, the discussion of what people saw on any particular day… all that stuff happens around the fire, and the fire allowed communities to form. That’s our purest tradition at Burning Man.

“And so if we were to say, ‘What should we do to salvage this year that would be common to everybody?’ If you tried to say, ‘Ok, we’ll do Greeters and we’ll do Gate,’ any one of these one aspects… yeah, it may apply to some people and some people love that part. But I think if you look for what’s common to everybody’s experience, the Man and going to Burning Man and preparing for some sort of project to contribute is common to everybody.”

K: How can people ignite the magic of Burn Night if it’s not safe to burn where they live?

Dave X: “There are places where it’s just not appropriate to make a fire. If you lived in the foothills of California, going in your backyard and burning even a two-foot man would be the height of irresponsibility. We’re not saying, ‘Just go light a fire anywhere because Burning Man wants you to.’ Act reasonably and safely too throughout this process.

“At Burning Man there are many times when we have to postpone burning something, or it just isn’t burnable upon inspection, and we have to shift plans. This is another opportunity for you to explore your creativity and your options and your ability to deal with unusual challenges. Change plans on the fly and come up with something more creative.

“It could involve a fake fire. Just Google ‘fake fire’ and there are a million homemade DIY options. Building one of these actually enables you to make a cool, long-term Burning Man sculptural project that you could have in your house for however long. You can put it on your entertainment center and make it even more entertaining. If you have a perpetually burning Burning Man, that’s kind of a win! It’s also a Build Week throw down challenge.

“Maybe it’s okay to burn later in the year when it gets to be the rainy season in your area. So maybe this is the opportunity for your Burning Man to go on a tour of the world, like a traveling garden gnome. Take photos wherever you go as he lives the good life before his ultimate demise in the flames of winter.”

K: How is the act of building your own effigy and sharing it with the people near you different from participating in a virtual burn?

Dave X:  “It’s a project that you can put your hands on and do something that’s not in front of a screen. It’s not virtual; you get to actually build something. And then if you feel comfortable, use that thing you built to form a small community of people that are in your kind of COVID bubble or your community.

“If it’s just the roommates in your house and you go in the backyard and burn this — bang you’ve created community. If you and your partner burn it in your backyard in the [barbecue] — bang there’s the community that you can handle. If you have a bunch of people who are in your COVID safe group, so to speak, you could all come together and burn it — bang community!”

K: It’s possible with this event you’ll be hatching 10,000 Baker Beaches. 

Dave X: “We have to think that there will be people who will come to this experience who have never gone to Burning Man and who may never go. Their one interaction of Burning Man is going to be the year they looked over the fence and saw their neighbor burning it and they’re like, ‘What are you doing?’

“‘Oh, it’s a Burning Man.’ And in their mind a whole different perception of Burning Man is created. Their traditions are going to be based on the neighbor’s Man Burn, or whatever they stumbled into, just like Baker Beach.

“And it could spiral off. Then that guy says to himself, ‘Even though I’m never going to go to Burning Man, I’m going to make sure to burn a wooden guy in my backyard every Labor Day,’ and it becomes Bob’s Backyard Man, or whatever. [laughs] Who knows what it might inspire?”

K: How does this feel for you, to be co-creating a global Burn Night instead of Burning the Man in Black Rock City?

Dave X: “I don’t really feel like this is my idea in particular. It just seemed like one of the first common threads. Everyone said, ‘Let’s do a virtual Burning Man.’ And everybody also said, ‘Let’s make sure we can do a Man Burn at home.’ So I’m just here to facilitate the dream of everybody who voiced that. Whatever I do here has to be so common to everybody’s experience. It’s no place to insert my own bravado or personality into this project. I’m channeling and trying to make safe what everybody wants to do.

“I’m just trying to take the lessons that I’ve learned to make an equal opportunity for everybody within this experience. It’s like being the guy at the church who goes in and scrapes off the wax in the morning and puts up new candles for everyone to come in and make their wish or their prayer. It doesn’t matter to me what the wish or prayer is. I’m just there to make sure there’s a fresh candle and there’s not so much melted wax that the church burns down. To act in service to everybody to pull this thing off. That’s what I’m trying to bring to it.”

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger (a.k.a. kbot) began her Burning Man journey in 2004 when she touched down in Black Rock City with a handful of disoriented Canadians. Since that early misadventure, she has shared in the wondrous emergence of Montreal’s Regional Burning Man community. A Black Rock Ranger and occasional theme camp organizer, Kirsten spends her summers bounding between Regionals in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US. Her biggest adventure yet involves joining the Burning Man Project Communications team, where she identifies storytelling opportunities and co-creates the global nonprofit’s communication strategies.

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