Where Burning Man (Really) Happens

A few weeks ago I threw an outdoor party where, just before sundown, we performed a ritual to take us out of “plague time,” that uncanny and pervasive sense that the world has stopped changing and we have stopped changing with it.

What does this have to do with Burning Man? I’ll get there. In fact, I’ll start throwing shade about Burning Man in just a minute, if you stick with me.

The ritual worked like this. Everyone at the party (around 25 people) all stood in a line, facing outwards, in a beautiful garden. One person began walking through the line, going up individually to everyone in it. 

“What have you missed?” they would ask each person in line. And each person in line would respond by telling them something specific and tangible they have missed terribly over the last year. It could be mundane (like hugs), it could be silly (like missing selfies with friends), it could be heartbreaking (like being sung to by someone they’ve lost). 

Then, after acknowledging what they’ve missed, the person standing in line would offer the person going through the line an action meant to represent what they’ve missed. So, for example, someone who missed hugs could ask, “May I hug you?” Someone who missed taking selfies with friends could ask, “Can we take a selfie together?” Someone who missed being sung to could ask, “Can you sing me a line from something you like?” Someone who missed baking for friends could offer them a cookie they brought with them. Someone who missed going on adventures could say, “Can we walk over to the patio and back?”

And of course, the person traveling the line can say “yes” or “no”—no one has to do anything they don’t want to do. 

One by one, the person traveling through the line heard the things that were missed during this terrible year, and had small, real-life, human moments about them with everyone. When they reached the end of the line, there was a hand-washing station. They washed their hands, then drank from a special cup that was shaped like a living tree. After drinking, they called out, “None of us are free until all of us are free!” and took their place in the line while the next person came through, and then they, in turn, offered this next person something they had missed.

We had hidden an industrial-strength bubble machine in the garden, so that every time someone sipped from the cup the garden was filled with bubbles. And when everyone had gone through the line and everyone had shared what they missed, we all shouted and yelled and called out to the world … and emerged from that terrible sense of timelessness together.

I doubt everyone involved had a profound experience—but some did, and it was often funny, silly, and charming. Perhaps most importantly, it started connecting people again after all this time apart.

But let’s be honest: you could probably do better than that, couldn’t you? Really? If you got a space and a bunch of friends together and all wanted to find a way to exit plague-time? You could come up with something amazing, if you thought about it.

Most Burners know how. 

That’s Nice. What About Burning Man?

For all that Burning Man has come to be associated with massive sculptures and fire-breathing mutant vehicles and a bass so dropped that its ex-girlfriend won’t answer its texts, it is experiences like this one—surprising, weird, human-scale, and meaningful—that I have always valued most about my time out on playa. 

All the big, towering explosive stuff is great—it’s incredible—but what I remember, what I take with me, what inspires me, what changes me, are the weird and meaningful and playful and profound and utterly unpredictable experiences of people, powered by art and Radical Self-expression. 

As people discuss whether to head out to the playa this year for Burn Week, as they struggle with the question of whether they can even do Burning Man given the limitations that federal agencies are putting on them, I think it’s crucial to point out that you can create experiences like this without big structures or hundreds of thousands of dollars and work-hours in equipment. 

You can make absurd, profoundly moving, stupid, wonderful, experiences of art and Radical Self-expression with cardboard, duct tape, and an idea. Or less.

You can go out to the playa and do that, and rediscover what—for me—has always been the real reason to go out there at all.

But … here’s the thing … you also don’t need to go out to the playa for that. All I needed to do that ritual was a friend’s backyard, a cool cup, and a hand-washing station. (The bubble machine was great, but not a necessity.)

You can do the most important part of Burning Man right where you are. In your neighborhood, and it can be amazing.

This has always—always—been a fundamental difference between Burning Man and the “festivals” it is often lumped in with. As I’ve written elsewhere, the fundamental message of festivals (like Coachella and Bumbershoot and SXSW) is: “You had to be there to experience it!” While the fundamental message of Burning Man is: “We can do this ourselves!”

Let’s Throw Some Shade

We are spending WAY too much attention on the question of what’s going to happen to Black Rock City. 

I love Black Rock City, and I want it to come back. And if people want to go out into the desert and DIY it this year, then (provided they are respectful of the needs of the area residents) I say Fuck Yeah! It’ll be amazing.

But honestly, when it comes to the evolution of Burning Man as a culture? A movement? Black Rock City is a distraction. It will return, it will still change lives, and I love it dearly, but right now it’s not really relevant to the direction of our culture. Neither are attempts to imitate it (however amazing and impressive they in fact are) in a digital space. 

Since the pandemic, Burning Man’s culture has not had a “center” the way it used to, because we have all been so scattered. When such a center eventually comes back, it won’t be the way it used to be.

The question of whether Burning Man will survive as a boutique art-party movement, or whether it will remain a culture capable of changing the world, is no longer being decided in Black Rock City. It’s being decided in your neighborhood. It’s being decided in small enclaves of Burning Man art and culture around the world. It’s being figured out by people who are not asking, “How can I get to the desert this year?” but rather, “How can I create this where I am? With the people around me?”

This has been true for years, actually—the pandemic has accelerated what was already the case, making it unmistakeable. 

The people who ask, “What kind of participatory Burning Man experience can I create—right here—out of cardboard, duct tape, and an idea?” are our culture’s ambassadors and innovators right now. They are the ones most likely to inspire who we become as a movement. What they do is what we will take with us into the future.

That’s how this works. Burning Man started with two families building a wooden Man on a beach out of found wood. It started with a group of urban pranksters doing stuff so weird and fun in public spaces that people eventually called it “art” for lack of a better term. 

Bigger and fancier is not more impactful. What we are looking for now, what we have always been looking for, are better ways to be more authentically together. You don’t need big art to do that, and you don’t need a desert either. You don’t have to be there. You never did.

The limitations we are placed under suck—but they are also an opportunity to rediscover why this was ever worth doing in the first place. And how we can do it better tomorrow.

Cover Image: Olivia Steele’s “Public Displays of Awareness” (Photo by Scott London)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

8 Comments on “Where Burning Man (Really) Happens

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  • DhammaSeeker says:

    Very happy to see Caveat’s words once again on this page. Well done!

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  • Bob Greeney says:

    Thank you for this inspirational writing, reminding us of what we know, and encouraging us to build connection and community with our own imaginations inspired by the Ten Principles and more.
    I have never gone to Burning Man. I did not really know what Burning Man was about until my son showed me the website several years ago. I was struck by the Ten Principles. How ambitious and wonderful I thought. I decided to go and participate in this experience with others. I tried and could not acquire a ticket. My spirited and creative friend Tom invited me and and another friend to his family house on Nantucket and told me we will do Burning Man on the beach. We collected beach articles and created our own beach sculptures, we improvised poetry, sang chanted, danced and performed beach theater. Six years later I remember and treasure that experience We were all children of the sixties, in our sixties and were able to effortlessly enter and dwell together in fantasy. In an effort to capture the larger social experience of Burning Man, I go to Carnival Week in Provincetown every summer. This is a festive and vibrant event, but could benefit from more self-reliance, self-expression, inclusion, participation and immediacy. Your writing inspires me to bring these elements to the people and events that are already part of my life. Bob

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  • Jean helms says:

    How comes it that the writing about Burning Man is soaked & dripping academia? Next you’ll be wanting a footnote!

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  • Juno says:

    100% we are looking for better ways to be “authentically together”. For me, the feeling of belonging is more valuable and more elusive than ever before.

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  • Dr. Really? says:

    Brilliant Caveat! Exercise the art of imaginary solutions… ‘Pataphysics is to Metaphysics as Metaphysics is to Physics.

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  • Lily Sparkles says:

    I’m having FOMO over the FOMO ritual gathering! Would love to be part of something like that. :)

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  • Fabulously written and well said. Important words for the culture. So crucial for NOW. Love the idea of a ritual to heal after the pandemic and isolation. We all have lost something during this time and it’s important to acknowledge it, no matter how “big” or “small” others might view it. Then taking a healing action – so good! Cheers to you from my own tree shaped cup <3

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