(Remember) How to Burning Man — Part 1: Building a City of Imagination with $teven Ra$pa

Looking for a handy refresher on the burnerly arts? Feeling a little rusty or wet behind the ears? Whether 2022 is your first time going to Black Rock City or your gazillionth, we’re rolling out this series throughout the summer of Waking Dreams to acculturate and amuse with tips, tricks, and pearls of wisdom to help you thrive in Black Rock City.

Returning to Black Rock City after a three-year hiatus will be joyful, and weird, vulnerable and surprising. Our city of imagination will inevitably be different this year, in new and unanticipated ways. Expect different versions of ourselves, different means of self-expression, and a metropolis with new priorities, people and shared experiences. And that, according to $teven Ra$pa, will create magnificent opportunities for exploration and reinvention.

We sat down with Ra$pa to discuss what it means to regather as a community. As many begin preparations for Waking Dreams, we explore what’s changed, what’s emerging, and how we can come together in new ways to collectively imagine and live our shared experience in Black Rock City and beyond.

Listen to the full conversation on Burning Man LIVE: 

So, Mr. Ra$pa, who are you and what do you do at Burning Man?

Ra$pa: I’m an artist, arts advocate and Associate Director of Community Events at Burning Man Project. For years I was responsible for public Burning Man events outside Black Rock City and I often speak about applying the 10 Principles and aspects of Burning Man culture to daily life, but what I do on a daily basis is help support our global Regional Network. I’m a member of the Regional Network Committee and founded the Regional Events Committee. At this point, I’m the longest standing member of both those committees. 

In those roles, I’ve had the pleasure of watching Burning Man culture evolve from a local Bay Area creative gathering, to a national gathering, to an international, multicultural city of cities, to a year-round global community with projects, gatherings, and aspects of the culture present year-round and increasingly, kind of everywhere. I can’t tell you what a privilege that has been and I can’t wait to see where it all goes next!  

What drew you to Burning Man?

I had just moved to San Francisco in 1996. I’d heard about Burning Man a few years before, when I was living in New York City and finally had an opportunity to go in ‘96 when I still knew no one in the community. I went by myself and was thrilled by the culture. What I really related to were the underlying values of art as community, art as experience, and art as social bond rather than product. And that’s what really always inspired me — as a poet, an artist, a culture hacker of sorts — and why I got into art and events in the first place.

I’m definitely excited to see what our people bring this year to Black Rock City. Every year is both the same city and a very different city. I love seeing how we collectively influence the shape and form of things to reflect what is going on in our hearts and minds and to create the kinds of experiences we want to have. 

More and more cities seem to be turning into real estate investment products and losing their original social function, diversity, quality of life and uniqueness. We try to turn that on its head and co-create a city based on authentic human expression and generosity; that increases the probability of having the kinds of experiences we want to have. It’s more the way healthy neighborhoods used to be, with people actively participating and working with neighbors to get things done. There’s just so much that still draws me to Burning Man. 

Ra$pa marshaling the Billion Bunny March, 2017 (Photo by Jared Mechaber)

What do you imagine might be new and different this year? What are you hoping for?

I’m hoping we give ourselves the permission to bring the full breadth of experiences we have been through. That means allowing for evolution and not just being nostalgic. We’ve all been changed in some way by experiences in the last three years, foremost among them the pandemic, which both shattered the illusion of separation and for many of us was simultaneously a painful experience of isolation, economic loss, and most profoundly loss of life and social relationships.

Since the last time we gathered we’ve also had to take a deeper look at inequities in society, in policing and biases baked into the fabric of our laws, social norms and behaviors. Then there’s global warming and our race to quickly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. That is certainly a thing. The Russian invasion and war in Ukraine, the incredible suffering and displacement that has caused and added to the displacement of people by violence in other parts of the world. How can we not be changed by that?

After three years, I expect that many of us have lost someone — whether to COVID-19, to war, or natural causes — and we’ll be remembering them. We carry a kind of collective grief as humankind over what we’ve been through. So we’re not as we were. At the same time many of us are propelled by a tremendous optimism and excitement for the possibilities that Black Rock City represents as a city of seemingly infinite human expression, joy and possibility. That’s the paradox. I think it’s going to be quite a year and I encourage each of us to show up vulnerably and be gentle with one another, even as we celebrate being together again and all the happiness that offers.

I think people are going to just be grateful to talk with one another again. With what we have been through and people being in very different emotional “places,” communication about comfort levels for even hugging may be a thing. It’s going to be a great year for deep and meaningful conversation. And we also have a tremendous amount of pent up energy and art coming. It’s going to be both a back to basics kind of year and a powerful art year! 

Do you have any particular challenges or questions you will be bringing to Black Rock City?

Well, I’m very challenged by the loss of life from war and senseless aggression. I will also be remembering friends and loved ones who died and trying not to have this burn be about loss. The questions on my mind are: how do we re enter the playa and greet one another again in a way that is meaningful after what we’ve all been going through? And while we’re at it, how can we also make Black Rock City even more welcoming, environmentally responsible, imaginative — you know, worth doing in every way… a worthwhile social experiment?

To people who are coming for the first time I would like to say: Read the Survival Guide and then bring your most authentic self to this experience. Don’t feel like you have to buy something to look fabulous because that is bullshit. Just bring something that you love to share with others. And if you’re coming back: what will make for a better version of Black Rock City and society? If you don’t know the answer, try stuff out. We’ve always been a culture that learns through experimentation and direct experience. 

I think a lot of people are going to be coming back as different people with new needs and it may be surprising to them how they end up burning.

Yeah, I think so, too. You come as an individual with your own ideas and what you want to get out of the experience, but the magic comes from the social interrelationships, when we allow ourselves to be together in a more deeply human way than perhaps in daily life. It’s a collaboration with our community. 

There’s something I really want to say that is coming up for me as we talk: I’m excited to see how we express ourselves this year. The real and profound meaning of Radical Self-expression has very little to do with spectacle. It has much more to do with authenticity and people being their most honest and vulnerable selves, sharing that with others. That’s something that I just love, love, love about people who embody the culture year round. They don’t wear it; they LIVE it and that becomes an invitation and encouragement for others to share and express more of themselves. While I love supporting designers and makers in our community, I get the biggest excitement and personal encouragement when I see people making things themselves out of unexpected materials. And it doesn’t have to be perfect. Safety pins, duct tape, and a little imagination go a long way. Any punk or club kid can tell you that. [LOL]

I’d like to see more of the DIY badass spirit of our community that I so love. I want to see people making outfits out of shit that would go in the landfill otherwise and making THAT look fabulous and provocative at the same time. I’d like to see even more of the theme camps and art teams fully committed to reducing, reusing, recycling and making Leaving No Trace even more fun and sexy. Because it is!

Many may come to Burning Man with an idea of what they’re going to do and what they’re going to experience and how they think it will change them. But I think to truly be transformed by what’s going on out there, you need to let go of that template and let the experience take over.

Yes, and that’s where Immediacy comes in. To get there you come prepared, hence Radical Self-reliance. Bring everything that you need to survive in a harsh and brutal environment in the desert, because it actually IS harsh and brutal. Then, when you are self-reliant and you have what you need, out of that actuality you can feel more confident in expressing who you are, and step outside of just being merely prepared — to become fully expressive, joyful, and abundant. 

But another thing happens when you are clearly standing in who you are and your capability. You look around and assess where you stand in relation to other people and to the natural world, of which we are all a part. Out of that three-pronged awareness the unexpected blooms and you can live completely in the moment with a renewed sense of being and just — as you put it — “let the experience take over.” But you are also just in tune with it all. Immediacy is related to mindfulness, to wakefulness, to spontaneity and flow. It’s a form of ultimate being.

And, you know, it’s also always nice to bring a little extra with others in mind, too. Bring what you love, bring who you are, think about your impact on the environment, and on others. How can you bring joy into the city? How can you bring something you’re really good at and listen well enough to share that with others in ways that delight? It’s not about stuff and it’s definitely not about buying and handing out disposable plastic blinky trinkets. In fact, leave disposable and single use crap at home, please. It’s about sharing who you are authentically and bringing all of our various versions of that generosity of being together, which leads to a culture of staggering abundance.

Is Black Rock City the most important thing? No, but the damn thing works, it keeps working, and it creates ripples in daily life and social reality. Every time it happens and we all bring something worth bringing into that “soup of social experimentation,” if you will, that spills over into the cauldron of the larger world afterwards–every year, like energetic drops of water in a pond that emanate outward. Drop…ripple…drop…ripple… Or maybe wind is a better metaphor. It adds something new to the wind.

Cover image created from original image of the Man, 2019 (Photo by Mark Nixon); Design by Deets Shay, 2022

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.

9 Comments on “(Remember) How to Burning Man — Part 1: Building a City of Imagination with $teven Ra$pa

  • Shpilkus says:

    I’m closing in on 20 years attending Burning Man. The changes and evolution have slowly ticked each year. I know after a 36 month gap between events, things are going to be different. The edgy roots of Burning Man seem to get getting diluted to the degree of not being recognizable.
    For me, coming to the playa has always been getting out of my comfort zone, but now it seems to be trying to make everyone as comfortable as possible. The default world has truly flooded into Black Rock City. I hope 2022 proves me wrong.

    Report comment

  • Cress says:

    Yes, good primer for this newbie. Thank you
    I like most these themes of this interview: Radical authentic expression, curiousity and abundance, and finally, let’s get back to be willing to be uncomfortable in our vulnerability

    Report comment

    • Raquel Kanani Seales says:

      I connect on all levels of your brilliant way of personal, and interpersonal growth! Such great higher intelligence. Love it ! I want to enter the realm of playa with those words of gold, to practice and to live in absolute knowing of human evolution… extrodinary.
      Love you

      Report comment

  • word wipe says:

    Many appreciation for your efforts, as well as those of all site contributors. I am aware that after a gap of 24 months, things will be different. Burning Man’s origins appear to be diluted to the point where they are no longer recognizable.

    Report comment

  • Peter says:

    Nice write up. But is Radical Self Expression this year not going to include any COVID restrictions for the community at large? Maybe I missed it … but I do not think I have seen anything in Jack Rabbit (or other communications) about whether there will be any COVID restrictions on playa this year …. things have been eerily silent? … or again … maybe I have just been asleep too much on this topic.

    Report comment

  • Herbert says:

    It’s amazing so see how the Burner online community thriving so well, with vibrant discussions on all topics related to Burning Man. It’s almost hard to keep up with everyone chiming in all the time about their love for the community.

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.