How does one explain the Burning Man Festival? The term ‘festival’ in itself seems an unfit descriptor for what is less an ‘event’ and more an ‘experience’ – a man-made mini-culture expertly combining Amsterdam Pride Parade with George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
In one word: Wow.
The problem is, trying to describe this uniquely wacky event to a first-timer is like explaining the taste of chicken to a vegetarian. You just can’t do it justice.
Regardless, before purchasing your plane ticket, let me try and paint a picture of just what exactly you’re in for…
What is the Burning Man Festival?
Burning Man is an annual event held in 2013 between 26 August and 2 September in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Created in the middle of this arid landscape is a temporary community based around the principles of radical self-expression, decommodification, extreme self-reliance and art.
Each year, artistic works at the Burning Man Festival are based around a theme. This year it’s ‘Cargo Cult‘.
Still can’t quite imagine it?
Picture this: Surrounded by the sticky 40 degree heat, you’re wandering through the arid plains of Black Rock. Nary a tree, shrub or soul is in sight. And then, suddenly, appearing as if a hallucination, a sprawling desertropolis rises from a vast dry lakebed: thousands of glittering trailers, tents and breathtaking art installations – a laser-blasting phone booth, a human-size ant farm, a 22m grand piano, a sauna-style treehouse and a firebreathing kinetic serpent. And there are people, hundreds, all dressed in the most outlandish outfits you could imagine… that’s if they are dressed at all. Some scuttle by on motorised insects, others choose a solar-powered dragon cart, mechanical cupcake or Victorian house on wheels.
And in the centre, standing tall, is this:
The Burning Man himself.
For five days, he will be overseer of this hidden city. And then, on the sixth day, the Saturday before Labor Day, the festival is true to its name, and the man is set alight.
And all around him you’ll find incredible art installations, like this…
History of the Desertropolis
The Burning Man began as a summer bonfire ritual in 1986 when Larry Harvey and Jerry James constructed and burnt a 9-foot wooden man in front of 20 people on Baker Beach in San Francisco.
By 1991, what had now become the ‘Burning Man Festival’ was moved to Black Rock Desert, where it attracted 250 guests to the burning of a 40-foot man.
Come 2009, this number had grown to 51,515. This year it’s capped at 50,000 and tickets have all sold out.
As for the bonfire, well, it looked something like this:
Now that’s one hell of a progression from a beach bonfire.
Like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are ten principles around which Burning Man Festival is based.
Radical Inclusion: A veritable ‘celebration of the stranger’, anyone with a ticket is gladly welcomed. Forget stereotypes and prejudices – they don’t play a role here.
Gifting: Leave wallets at home because gifting is the economy of Burning Man. Remember, this is not an exchange – the giving of a gift is considered to be unconditional.
Decommodification: To preserve the spirit of giving and protect from the banes of consumption, no cash transactions are allowed. While there are one or two exceptions to this rule, it’s best to steer clear of dollars and cents.
Radical Self-reliance: Considering the event’s harsh environment, individuals must be prepared to rely on inner resources and be responsible for their own subsistence.
Radical Self-expression: Whether it be through artistic installations, community projects, radical outfits or nudity, participants are encouraged to express themselves and explore their unique talents in any number of ways.
Communal Effort: Cooperation and collaboration are key components, with all working together in their quest for artistic freedom.
Civic Responsibility: Burning Man values civil society, and encourages participants to act in accordance with federal, state and local laws.
Leaving No Trace: Come 7 September, there is to be ‘no trace’ left of Burning Man. In a demonstrated commitment to the environment, participants aim to leave Black Rock in a better state than it was when they came.
Participation: Radical participation is non-negotiable. Forget rocking up in jeans and a T-shirt, getting intimately involved in the artistic expression is a requirement for all.
Immediacy: Participants aim to be forever in the moment, overcoming barriers that stand between their everyday persona and the exploration of their inner souls. This is perhaps the most essential tenet of the Burning Man Festival.
How to get there and where to stay
The closest airport to Black Rock desert is Reno International. Once you get there, we would suggest booking a few nights at one of our hostels in Reno or else a hostel in Las Vegas if you’re keen on a taste of the nightlife pre-Burning Man. The thing is – you’re going to need those nights to prepare for this desert adventure! Why not spend some time chilling out in the US and working on your costume?
Once you’re ready to head for the festival, it may be useful to book a car for transportation (that’s if you haven’t already sorted out your own ‘artistic vehicle’). Keep in mind, however, that you will not be able to use your car as transportation for the duration of your stay.
The other option is, of course, to get a cab. While this will be incredibly expensive for a single trip, it may be cheaper than renting. That’s if you can find a driver crazy enough to make the journey…
Please remember, you will be LIVING IN THE DESERT for a week. In other words, it’s hot. It’s also unpredictable. Be prepared for volatile extremes – bringing everything from warm clothes and blankets to quality tent pegs, ample shade shelters, vats of sunscreen and water. Lots of water.
If you want to see more absolutely, incredible pictures (and I’m not exaggerating!) check out Scott London’s photos on his website.