The (Not So Secret) Art of Burning 365 — A Conversation With $teven Ra$pa

No one is better equipped to evangelize the wonder and cultural importance of burning every day, everywhere, all the time than Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Community Events and Founding Member of the Regional Network Committee, $teven Ra$pa. We sat down and asked him a few questions about this wily global culture we’re always talking about.

(Psst… Ready to go to Burning Man NOW? Dive into 365: A Burning Man Field Guide — your handbook for infusing Burner magic, whimsy, and kindness into every corner of the universe.)  

$teven Ra$pa, 2011 (Photo by Scott London)

What’s your Burning Man origin story? 

Ra$pa: I attended Burning Man in 1996. Being new to the culture and not knowing anyone directly involved, I hitched a ride via the rideshare board online and went on my own. The unbridled creativity and “art by and for community” experience completely won my heart, and I began volunteering after that. That first time I was not the best newbie to the culture. I was a city boy and I didn’t bring enough water or adequate shelter. I wasn’t totally prepared because I’d never been into camping and I was still finding my way beyond traditional forms of art and learning how to navigate a city of pure imagination and primal experience with forms of art and rules of engagement that were new to me.

I learned how to be more self-reliant and came back the following year as a dedicated volunteer with extra supplies for others, and an interactive art project to add to the mix. I went on to work on large collaborative art projects, theme camps, and lead Burning Man gatherings outside of Black Rock City back in the Bay Area, and my role evolved into one that encourages and supports official Regional Events and the culture globally. Along the way, I became an advocate for the arts and developed a penchant for applying the 10 Principles to urban planning. I just fell in love with the entire community, the culture, and potential of it all.

What does it mean to bring Burning Man ethos and principles into everyday experience?

Ra$pa: I’m glad you asked that. A pet peeve of mine is when people go to Black Rock City or Regional Events and treat them as a vacation from reality. Drives me crazy! It might be fine to do that once, but if that’s all you get out of the experience you miss the point. My hope instead is that people get a kind of proof of concept experience. They find experiential proof that there are better possible versions of reality if we agree to align around different underlying values than we find in the “normal” world, which too often are based upon consumption, soulless transactions, unhealthy power dynamics, and branded existence.

How do we get to a better possible reality? Well, for Burners — and by “Burner” I mean anyone who identifies with the Principles and culture, not just someone who has gone to a Burn — it means bringing what you respect and love about the culture into your daily life. That might mean living your life more authentically and expressing who you are in ways that encourage others to do the same. It could be daring to live outside the normal consumption economy and leading with gifting and sharing economy culture. It could mean looking at your own consumption patterns when it comes to water and waste and how the decisions you make affect others and the natural world.

It means being bold enough and brave enough and loving enough to embody the culture and take it into your daily life. It means converting the ideas and implicit values of Burner culture into thoughtful and meaningful action. For many the 10 Principles offer the potential of a different kind of operating system for people and society.

How can people make their lives, and the lives of people around them, better when they burn 365?

Ra$pa: For one, when people share more of themselves and their passions with one another, they create more abundance in the world. When people are being and doing what they love, there is more passion, more love, and more permission and encouragement for others to do the same. That can shift society from a culture of scarcity and consumption to generosity, sharing, and abundance. Just think about the positive impact that Radical Self-expression, Gifting, and Communal Effort alone can have in that light. That’s just one example of how the culture can benefit people personally and collectively.

I’d love it if more people practiced Radical Inclusion in daily life and actively considered how to create welcoming environments as they move through the world. There are also a multitude of possible applications and benefits to the kind of mindfulness that Immediacy inspires; the environmental stewardship that Leaving No Trace contemplates; and so much more.

I could go on and on, but ultimately the answer depends on what someone is inspired by, needs more of in their life, and has to offer. There isn’t a cookie cutter path or result. But I do believe that if every Burner did just a little bit more to embody what they love or respect about the culture, the world will be changed for the better. Each of us has more power over our own reality and social reality than we give ourselves credit for.

With Black Rock City put off another year and many official Regional Events not taking place last year, how has that affected the culture?

Ra$pa: When the pathway of a river or any great force is blocked, new pathways are formed. Taking the culture online is one of those new pathways. It has made the culture more inclusive to many, though not without some compromises. There have also been Burners who have created art maps and invited people to place art and theme camps on the map throughout cities they live in. The Texas and Seattle Burner communities helped pioneer that. There have been experiments with drive-thru versions of the culture at COVID-safe distances. There have been free parades through towns, front porch theme camps that enabled neighbors to meet one another for the first time, online mental health support and community support forums I predict will continue as communities form around them. And there have been many smaller gatherings throughout the world that take the culture back to its more intimate roots. As Burner events return it is the smaller gatherings that will pave the way. I think that is very healthy.

I see the culture mutating and reaching farther and deeper into daily life — which is a wonderful thing! There is no “Default World” unless we ourselves default and fail to actively participate in shaping personal and social reality. This pause in large events has already led to a healthier proliferation of cultural “vessels” and forums to continue the experiment. We call it the “Burning Man Project” because it is an ongoing cultural project and experiment.

What are you envisioning for the future of global, 365 Burning Man culture 20 years into the future?

Ra$pa: It would be wonderful to feature applications of the culture in diverse areas of life—from the arts to industry, environmental justice and regeneration, economic thought, urban planning… even governance. I’ve always been a fan of global competitions that celebrate positive impact, so I would love for our community to offer an annual award for the application of Imagination in outrageous ways that solve real world problems or maybe create maximum joy. The more positive and ridiculously unexpected the impact, the better!

But I’ll settle for just more and more people bringing what they love about the culture into their everyday lives and not waiting for the next event. I expect the culture will continue to push beyond the boundaries of event perimeters. We are each part of a parade moving through the world and I’d just like us all to be the most marvelous, creative, badass, loving, and ingenious people possible. Bring it!

Marching Band at the San Francisco Decompression, 2018 (Photo by Leori Gill)

A parade, you say? Tell us more.

Ra$pa: Well, I always love a good parade and it occurs to me that we are each part of a cultural parade that is moving through the world as we ourselves embody different aspects of this culture. So, I’d just like the parade to grow more beautiful and robust in every way. I’d like us all to be the most marvelous display of the power of creativity, of love, and of interconnected community that is humanly possible. I’d like us to be the shiny thing that steers humanity in better directions than we are currently marching. We have so many brilliant people in this community and a platform for positive social change that is working in uneven ways, but at times pretty darn well… not perfectly, but the damn thing keeps working. (laughs)

I have faith that together we can and will address the challenges of our time. And have fun doing it! (laughs) We can’t take ourselves too seriously and we definitely cannot forget the fun part. That’s part of the secret sauce. I don’t know if we will ever be the most efficient bunch of people, but we are pretty damn effective in our own messy way. That’s also the nature of culture and cultural shifts. It’s a messy affair. And the parade must go on!

Discover how you can burn everywhere, every day, via the online “365: A Burning Man Field Guide” (Illustration and design by Tanner Boeger)

Cover image: $teven Ra$pa, Million Bunny March, 2012 (Photo by George Post)

About the author: Kirsten Weisenburger

Kirsten Weisenburger

Misadventures led Kirsten Weisenburger (aka kbot) to Black Rock City in 2004. She was captivated and hoodwinked into organizing theme camps, rangering and participating in Regional Events. As Communications Strategist, Kirsten works across the organization and global community gathering stories and writing for the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks, and the annual Dispatch. She went to journalism school in the 1990s and then spent two decades at startups and digital agencies.

4 Comments on “The (Not So Secret) Art of Burning 365 — A Conversation With $teven Ra$pa

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  • Dustin says:

    Is Ra$pa planning to grow back his glorious beard?

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  • Josh says:

    >…by “Burner” I mean anyone who identifies with the Principles and culture

    I started going before the Principles were written. So I don’t really identify with them. Also, I’m not really sure if the culture of Burning Man is homogeneous. Gifting is nice, and cleaning up after is good for the playa. Having fun and participating… Is that what the culture is? If not, I don’t really know. So I’m not sure if I can call myself a Burner. Recently being a Burner has also become to mean aligning with Progressive political principles. Unfortunately, I’m a libertarian, as were most of the early attendees. I think maybe things have evolved to a point where I should probably move on because the definition of Burner has narrowed to seemingly exclude people like me.

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  • Juno says:

    “I’d like us all to be the most marvelous display of the power of creativity, of love, and of interconnected community that is humanly possible.” That’s a vision worth working (and playing) for! Thank you for your eloquence and passion, Ra$pa. You truly walk the talk of the 10 Principles.

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