Roxane Jessi is a world traveler who spent the last few years participating in Burning Man Regional Events around the globe — from Blazing Swan and Burning Japan to Fuego Austral and Midburn. In 2023 Burning Man Publishing released her new book, Once Upon a Time in the Dust, Burning Man Around the World, which chronicles her adventures. This is the first in Roxane’s Journal series sharing sights, sounds and connections from the wildly inventive global Burning Man community. Curious to learn more? Hear Roxane speak about her adventures on the Burning Man Live podcast.
Borderland, Sweden’s Regional Event, epitomizes Communal Effort. I was fortunate enough to take part in its main gathering this summer in the enchanting Swedish woodland. I then returned in December for an unofficial decompression event in Stockholm. Both experiences demonstrated the strength of this year-round community.
I land in a frozen Sweden in the depths of winter to reunite with my Borderland family. As the year draws to an end, snow blankets most of the country, lakes have turned to ice, and frigid winds whistle round street corners. The days are short, and the long nights are best spent indoors by roaring fires. As I approach the city, I cast my mind back to the magic I lived when I last visited the country for the main event. Borderland is a Moomin-like wonderland in the woods, where trees are enchanted, and miniature bars spring from the ground. A land where Vikings compete in epic duels, boars are skinned with expert precision, and participants let go of their deepest inhibitions — however wild.
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Back in July, I traveled from red-hot Nowhere in Spain to Sweden’s cool wilderness, crossing the “Border” to a land where the only currency is play. Borderland is unlike other burns I’ve participated in — and I’ve been to fifteen on five continents. Rooted in Live Action Role Playing (LARPing), it is more like a social experiment in participatory theater.
On arrival, a young Gandalf-like wizard strolls by with a wink under his giant gray felt hat, and I dive headfirst into play. The site buzzes as self-described Borderlings erect structures they’ve spent months creating. Art is not the main draw; the camps are. A sinful church, a spaceport, and one of the ubiquitous saunas — a Scandinavian rite of passage. On the hill, a fairytale fortress is being raised. There is no effigy or temple, the latter at odds with the predominantly atheist culture amongst this community, as would later be explained to me by a local Borderling. Unlike the ultra-organized Midburn in Israel, the pace of work seems purposefully slow, the site changing daily with new spaces to explore.
Borderland is uniquely managed. Aside from a core group that handles general event administration, participants co-create realities (practical aspects) and dreams (anything you can imagine). 2022 was the first year Borderland took place on this land, which was recently bought as its permanent home.
Like others, my camp, the 6* Hotel Jean-Luca has no set shifts for camp duties. It is a do-ocracy and everyone chips in, often breaking into loud Swedish folk song. During the day, we thumb the dog-eared JOMO guide with its Game-of-Thrones type activities. From welding, BorderLARP classes, to a Viking warrior quest. While there are few art structures on show, performance art is all around. Everyone stops to play, in full character. I challenge myself to enter the “Pet Olympics.” The competition is fierce; one daredevil contestant breaks free to climb to the top of a towering tree in a monkey suit.
Beyond the theatrical, the quiet camp area beckons, sweetly smelling of coffee. Home to cozy camps such as the Inner Cartographer’s Club, which is covered in plush cushions and heavy books that map world philosophies. As the sun dips people flock to the lakeside Tiki Bar, run by the comically-named Tropical Goths who huddle under black umbrellas while The Cure plays on repeat.
After dark, the wonderland comes to life. While burns are often synonymous with dusty deserts, the Borderland sound stages are nestled deep in the woods. We take a magical walk to the Muumimaa stage, inspired by the Moomins, a family of white, round fairy tale characters created by a Finnish illustrator. The trees twinkle with fairy lights on the enchanted woodland path, and the fresh smell of fern permeates the cool night. We delight at boxes hidden along the path, wherein one can take and leave gifts for other wanderers.
I am joined by one of our virgin campmates, and we leave Muumimaa to hit the backstreets and quieter camps. As we explore, I try to convey the awesome power of a place where everyone is free to be their authentic self and gift to others. At first he was hesitant to give in to play, and adamant against any fancy dress. I would see his transformation during the week; his serious exterior progressively chipping away. Burns have a way of softening the edges of those entering their social experiments.
For all its softness, Borderland is not for the faint hearted, providing a no-holds-barred environment for Radical Self-expression. A wild boar hunted by bow and arrow is skinned Viking-like outside our camp. Further afield, staff will insult you at the tongue-in-cheek Patriarchy Lounge’s Bastard Bar.
By the weekend, the outlandish peaks. I pass a man dressed as a werewolf-king, before diving to the ground for last orders at the world’s smallest miniature bar. Meanwhile, dark-bearded goths crowd the Tiki bar in formal wear for a snail race. Bets are placed and patrons loudly egg-on their snail, which they incentivize to race with salad leaves. Back at the hotel, wild boar is being served on a silver platter by a shirtless waiter with ram ears and a bow tie. He turns around; it’s the virgin burner who accompanied me to Mumumima earlier in the week — apparently no longer opposed to fancy dress.
The nights are short, and a heavy sunrise mist blankets the site. The mystical looking tree I’m camped beneath has been selected as a treehouse. I climb up and the view takes my breath away. In Norse Cosmology all beings live in Nine Worlds in the branches and roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil. Nine is a mythical number in Northern Europe, and the Poetic Edda, the most ancient collection of Norse poems, suggests these included the worlds of the Aesir and Vanir tribes of gods and goddesses, giants, and elves. The Edda also speaks of Niflheim, the primordial world of ice, and Muspelheim, the primordial world of fire. As we come together to Burn, we honor the spirit of Muspelheim anew. Up in the tree, in the stillness of dawn, these ancient worlds collide like soft and distant voices as cool air blows through the tree’s majestic branches. It feels eerily magical, the misty woodlands alive with Nordic folklore.
Finally, we come together for the closing ceremony. Due to a fire ban there is no burn, but we feel the warmth of this 2,000-strong family. An arm gently snakes around my waist. The virgin burner who was so guarded earlier in the week gives me a hug, thanking me for helping him open up to this experience.
Although strangers a week ago, the experience has united us. This is what Burning Man does best, across its network. There’s no need for a dusty desert, towering art, or dramatic burns to feel its power. Borderlands’ Scandinavian experiment strips away these elements. Here we become real-life characters in the ultimate LARPing game — in a co-created reality where we can be our true selves.
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Back to the present day in frigid Stockholm, my 6* Hotel Jean Luca campmates have organized a six-course meal in honor of my return. I am showered with hugs as I walk through the door and my hosts immediately dress me in traditional Viking wear. I look at at the faces around the table; the bonds between this group are solid. A sweet reminder that the tightest burn families never disband.
Later we go to the mini burn organized at Noden with its plethora of workshops offered by participants. It is a place to disconnect, a place to be silly, a place to be free. Here we are once more reminded of the strength of the community that exists year-round, notably through Blivande (which roughly translates to “becoming”), a participatory working space in the city founded by members of the community where artists and co-creators gather to plan the creative projects of the future.
It is these city gatherings that keep the burn spirit alive during colder times, when our day-to-day lives bite and we thirst for connection even more. Trudging through the bitter wind and snow, it feels good to reunite with warm friendly faces, reminisce about the times we built our “Home” in the woodland, and feel like one again. We leave with hearts full from a time spent on the border of reality and dreams. A tale of two cities, where we gathered to celebrate the primordial Muspelheim and Niflheim worlds of fire and ice.
Cover image by Roxane Jessi