Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Why Go?

People go to Burning Man for so many reasons. At the core being there is about seeing and being seen. Donning a spiky costume, fashioning an amazing art car, designing a playa art installation and belting out a song all garner attention. In that post-modern life often obfuscates our core human needs for engagement, being at Burning Man can be a dramatic fix. Under appreciated scientists glow in brewing up solar-powered banana smoothies, office clerks become respected rangers and psychologists become wild fire dancers.


The Culture of Burning Man

Participating at Burning Man is being part of a co-creation that is experienced as a time very much distinct from life in the "default" world. Everyone engages the same sweltering heat and the same blizzardy dust storms that can limit visibility to less than an inch. Culture jumping is possible if not welcome. All camps welcome visitors whether for scheduled "events" or just dropping in. Age and class distinctions become blurred. Everyone is fair game for flirting--flirting not in quest of a long-term "one" but for pristine moments. Sometimes the moment is simply an extra-long glance, other times its a half-hour conversation in a chill space while the afternoon wind spins the sand in circles, a wide-ranging chat while waiting in line for a free plate of pancakes and of course a spark can kindle a fire. Mostly it doesn't. And that perhaps is the beauty of being at Burning Man. Every moment just is.

Playa Art

The Culture of Possibility

At Burning Man, despite the harsh desert conditions, there isn't a sense of desperation. Amongst nearly 50,000 people, the playa is filled with possibilities. Akin to the 1960s, there is a sense of shared values amidst shared hardships. And being that it is a festival and not a true blue economy, for the week there is plenty to eat, drink and grok. And giving is fun. Unlike the default world, giving a lot does not create dependency. Givers give as they see fit. Slices of watermelon are dispensed as long as there is watermelon. Cafes stay open for the shear pleasure of serving. And when it's no longer a pleasure, they close. And no one goes thirsty or hungry as a result. Everyone can partake in the theater of giving and receiving. There are neither professional beggars nor professional aristocrats.

Burning Man / Kumbha Mela

In addition to partaking in Burning Man in August 2007, this last January I had the privilege of spending a week at the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, India. In the grand scale of things the Kumbha Mela is a much bigger festival (30 million Hindu peasants attend) while like Burning Man it was an absolute feast for the eyes. Being that I don't speak a word of Hindi, I largely engaged the Kumbha Mela through my camera--and the Indians I met so enjoyed posing, much as decked out burners do. Rather than theme camps, the Kumba Mehla features temple sites. And these temples follow a parallel practice to the gifting that occurs at Burning Man by distributing prasad, food offerings.

While the Kumbha Mela did not feature the dramatic pyrotechnics of Burning Man, the event was punctuated by a series of baths in the Ganges River. Like Burning Man's ritual burns, these baths were well attended. What follows is a series of photographs that note the parallels between these two festivals.

Burners and Bathers

Things on Fire

Why is it important for things to be burned? Why would people put so much effort into creating something just to burn it? Perhaps it’s about a cycle, the transformation from something material and physical into heat and memory. Letting go. Perhaps that which can be burned can complete its cycle. Cremation. Burning just-created-art as the ultimate trip on the cycle from birth to death.

I edged myself into some of the burns. Completely circled the heat-spewing embers of the temple. It was impressive and damn scary. Wouldn't want to be even an inch closer.



Burning Man is not a commercial event. Offers are not embedded in offers. Nothing much is for sale other than ice and drinks at the center camp cafe. Many attendees assume playa names and do not hand out business cards or in any way try to extend their momentary burner existence into the capitalistic consumption-obsessed default world. If someone offers you an iced coffee, it's just that, a refreshing, potentially stimulating drink. No come on for Starbucks or Peet’s or Coffeemania. No coupons for more, no survey right afterwards to find out if you liked it, just a here and now offering. Stepping back a moment I face that this is what it's like to live in a community--a big family. No one is anyone's mark. No agendas for dragging any moment into the future. Just fully now. It could be what's on the other side where there is no stock market, no pending economic doom, no undervalued or overvalued real estate. Just food, drinks, love and hugs to share. Heaven.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007