Burning Man: Reaching Out

Creating change requires building coalitions, spreading a movement beyond its initial, committed core. This year’s theme, Rites of Passage, was interpreted by many participants in individual terms, but has also been described by Burning Man organisers as shaping Burning Man’s relationship to a world in crisis:

We are living in a period of widespread fear and insecurity. We cling to what we have, but what we’ve had was merely the illusion of a mortgaged future. Nothing that we see around us feels sustainable. As one who blunders off a cliff, our legs still twiddle in the air: we haven’t gained a foothold that will see us through. Deeply-fathomed change we share with others — the kind of change that summons up the earth to meet one’s feet — becomes the only pathway forward, our most crucial step.

This framing encourages a shift away from the divide that many burners draw between Burning Man and the ‘default world‘, “The rest of the world that is not the playa during the Burning Man event.” Burners often emphasise the difference between Burning Man and the rest of their lives, and the difficulty of re-integrating into the ‘default world’ after Burning Man: a quick search of online forums will turn up a whole heap of threads about dealing with the shift.

Larry Harvey being interviewed on the stage of TEDx BRC
Photo courtesy of flickr user Audrey Penven

During his talk at TEDx BRC, Larry Harvey criticised this way of thinking about the rest of life outside Burning Man as the default world. He argued that this implies the ‘source code’ of reality always resets: no change is possible. However, going back to everyday life as part of the Burning Man community means that burners do have the resources to create change.

Harvey, along with other speakers at TEDx BRC and elsewhere at Burning Man, explicitly called for Burning Man to play a greater role in helping to change mainstream society. Two or three different speakers, including Larry Harvey, quoted Milton Friedman in describing Burning Man’s potential to embody alternatives to the systems we have no:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

If Burning Man is going to model alternatives in a way that has a potential to be politically useful, the Burning Man community needs to move away from seeing Black Rock City as being separate from, and other to, the rest of the world.

Even the best alternatives are useless if noone knows about them, or if they’re misunderstood. There are plenty of people out there arguing that Burning Man is more than just “one big drug-addled rave party in the desert”. (The argument is slightly complicated by the fact that, for many participants, this is exactly what Burning Man is all about.) But I think more probably needs to be done to raise awareness of the alternatives that Burning Man has to offer: which of its systems can be transferred to our everyday lives?

Linked to this is the need for Burning Man communities to not only expand their reach outwards into off-playa communities, but also to learn more from off-playa communities. As I noted in my first post, Burning Man participants are not a particularly diverse bunch. This means that the alternatives that we build out there and the ways in which we think they might apply to everyday life are often going to be limited by our own experiences. I heard a heap of people talking about how to escape the constraints of their (reasonably well-paid) nine to five jobs, or how to give themselves more room for creative expression in their lives. I didn’t hear anyone talk about how to deal with foreclosures, or long-term unemployment, or the US’ serious institutional racism. If the Burning Man community is going to offer solutions, there are good reasons to think critically about what the real problems actually are.

There are plenty of people involved in the event who are taking steps to make the principles behind the event relevant and useful beyond Burning Man. The well-established Burners Without Borders and the newly-created Burning Man Project are promising developments. Those involved in the latter aim to “bring experiences to people in grand, awe-inspiring and joyful ways that lift the human spirit, address social problems and inspire a sense of culture, community and cultural engagement.”

If this is going to succeed, Burning Man communities will need to build links with other organisations and movements. I’ve argued elsewhere that we need to see more effective coalition-building, particularly from those who want to create progressive change but don’t necessarily have a background in left-leaning activism. I’m curious to see how well burners will link up with other communities, particularly those that are economically and politically marginalised. The networks that are built in coming years will, I think, play a large role in determining whether 2011 will really have been a Rite of Passage in Burning Man’s development.

6 thoughts on “Burning Man: Reaching Out

  1. I’ve heard this before – people saying that BM isn’t very diverse. I think it’s pretty diverse myself, from talking to people about where they come from and their backgrounds, but if what you’re saying is that really poor people can’t come, then maybe someone who that bothers could work on that. Start a scholarship to go to BM or something.

    I refuse to feel guilty, myself. There are a lot more wasteful things in this world than restoring your spirituality, being with intelligent, genuine and creative people and being inspired to give more in the world. Any number of massive commercial enterprises come to mind, since their entire goal is just to make money. We’re used to being told to feel bad about ‘wasting’ time on art, but who we are, where we have been, what we reach for, this is all found in art, not ever in the manufacture of money.

    1. I’m not arguing that people who participate in Burning Man should feel guilty because it’s not more diverse, or that we shouldn’t enjoy going. What I’m arguing is that if the Burning Man community is going to promote Burning Man as a model alternative – a way of doing things that is better than how mainstream society does it, or a solution to the problems of mainstream society – we’d better make sure that we’re not being blinkered by the limitations of our own community’s experiences. Otherwise the solutions we end up offering might not be all that relevant to other people.

      Of course, this is only relevant for those who see Burning Man as a space in which “to develop alternatives to existing policies”. If, for you, Burning Man is an excellent holiday or an inspiration for your art or a giant rave or a spiritual journey or whatever else, these arguments might not hold.

  2. Activism / art / politics have deeply problematic relationships especially in the cities where ‘arts’ education & establishment has reduced artists to feeble observers or manipulative parasites…

    okay; a gross generalisation, but largely true. Where this is not the case there should be an exchange of ideas / currency / bartering / works etc. etc.

    Any event successful in its field – & the Burning Man is legendary – should be looking to spawn. & looking for roots, uncles / aunts and baby brothers n sisters. to extend the metaphor.

    I am ignorant though – does this not happen?

    But then and again a lot of these siblings won’t be able to provide anything like the same experience.

  3. Burning Man has definitely spawned (or grown offshoots, or put down roots, depending on your metaphor and analysis). There are projects like the ones I mentioned above, regional Burns (including an Australian Burn), and plenty of other bits and pieces inspired by Burning Man.

    I agree that many of these won’t give the same experience – but they may bring out and amplify important aspects of Burning Man, which might be even better than replicating Burning Man over and over.

    1. Cool – sorry I don’t think I put myself across very well – replicating would of course be impossible. My point was meant to be that maybe it would be possible to create networks which allows, perhaps even deliberately embraces, very different experiences / forms of art devoted to means of activism. Even forms of education.

  4. That sounds good, and I think there are projects like that out there. Work around Radical Cross Stitch springs to mind! I’m not sure whether Burning Man is a good starting point for art as a means of activism – that seems a little too purposive and serious for most of the Burning Man community, especially since there’s such an emphasis on freedom of expression and creating your own meaning.

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