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2004.09.15

"What is Burning Man?"

“What is Burning Man?” Without time to answer the first, the second and third arrive. “What do you do there” “Who goes there?” Traveling back from Black Rock City and telling people of my travels, I am barraged by these same questions. Honestly, there is no easy answer. In fact, the answer is as complex and hazy as the true origins of the event.

In 1986, Larry Harvey and 11 friends needed to get away from the everyday life of San Francisco. These individuals were not social outcasts or people even on the fringe of society. According to a camp-mate of mine named Jeff from San Francisco, the collective group were known as “intellectuals”. These intellectuals gathered on a beach in San Francisco to get a few things off their chests, namely Larry’s former relationship. Over the course of three days they forgot about the outside world and let their inner selves out. In the end, they gathered some driftwood and sculpted it as a figure, which they promptly burned. It was not a specific effigy to anything or anyone, as far as the tale goes, but an effigy of events and times of which they wanted to leave behind.


The 12 friends became 30, or more. The following year it is rumored to be 300. It was not because the event was a party beyond parties, or an orgy on the beach. The appeal was (and remains at the core) a time for the demons inside to be let out and then burned at the end, so as to have a clean slate for the following year. The expression of these demons has become to be known as “participating”. The cleansing has become the burning of the ever more elaborate figure known as “the Man”, the Temple, and now a Pagoda.


The evolution of the event to 35,000 or so for 2004 means a lot of souls are asking to be cleansed. The manifestation of this comes in every single shape and form. I can describe it like this: Think of something you would NEVER EVER do in your normal life. This includes your after hours. Think of the things that you only ever do in your dreams. Burning Man is the place where those dreams are realized and not criticized (except for a few yahoos on Saturday). Have you ever been naked for seven straight days?

Back in the day, the idea of doing something you would never normally do made the selection of the site ideal. Participants could walk out onto the edge of the playa and shoot a gun (because they had never had or wanted a gun (and this is now not allowed because you cannot have guns on the playa)) or jump out of a friend’s airplane without the fear of hitting something on the ground. The playa caused a default thought of “pack in, pack out” mentality that is strongly encouraged to this day. But it wasn’t because they had no services, but because the area was so beautiful that it was ridiculous to think of littering this place. Nowadays, it is a rule and demand by all to keep the streets clean. Rules are delivered in any and every form so every citizen of Black Rock City knows to “pack in and pack out”. The playa is still a beautiful place, but the collective social dynamic within the city no longer is able to retain a default attitude for cleanliness.

Burning Man can be anything you want it to be. If you want to sit and read a book for a week, you can. If you want to rave 24 hours a day, you can. The major underlying premise of the event, though, is how people appreciate what is said or done in the streets of the city. Congratulations are delivered to people for taking a voice, even if people do not agree with what is being said. This is not a normal city. As Larry Harvey proudly states, “People still look you in the eye here.” This acceptance stems from one of the most well know laws of the city: “There are no spectators at Burning Man.” (And as the tour guide for the Artery Bus emphasized, “Get you ass off the bus!”) As long as people are participating in the events, or creating their own, it is appreciated. Burning Man is a place that is temporarily created for us to cleans our demons and have a chance at starting over for the year with a clean slate. It’s also a chance for the other side of everyone to be the front side, even if it is only for a week. My best answer to all those questions is, “You’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself.”

More to come…

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Comments

Read the 2004 book "This is Burning Man" by Brian Doherty. It goes a long way into exploring the history and meaning of Burning Man.

Posted by: WALT! | Oct 4, 2004 7:31:53 PM

Read the 2004 book "This is Burning Man" by Brian Doherty. It goes a long way into exploring the history and meaning of Burning Man.

Posted by: WALT! | Oct 4, 2004 7:32:14 PM

That is a good book to check out. This link to Burning Man is a well thought out explanation, as well. Alternative Ideas about BM.

Posted by: Gabe | Oct 4, 2004 8:06:14 PM

These two comments seem to contradict each other -

"Burning Man can be anything you want it to be. If you want to sit and read a book for a week, you can."

vs.

"This acceptance stems from one of the most well know (sic) laws of the city: There are no spectators at Burning Man."

Posted by: Jack | Aug 17, 2005 8:30:13 AM

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