Following a week of Burning Man plus a week of San Francisco, I am back home and mind-blowingly inspired. Wow! Who imagined this and how? And how in the world were they able to convince an army of people and mobilize the world’s greatest minds to follow such a nonsensical and yet brilliant idea…?
So many people seem to have formed opinions based on assumptions without even having been there. Is it a rave? Is it a cult or is it a sinful millionaire playground? What happens at Burning Man? I wanted you to hear it from someone who has actually been there and loved it. But do read other peoples’s opinions as well. Some are less enthusiastic, some are thrilled. As they say, everybody experiences a different Burning Man and here is mine.
We travel around the world for work and we made our living organizing festivals and other events. Yet, I have not seen another experience in the world that transcends this – and we say this as two people who travel the world and make a living by organizing culture and arts events. Having seen Burning Man, everything else pales in comparison and seems to lack creativity; all other ideas feel simply inside the box.
I recommend reading this article without skipping because there is a certain flow and if you miss certain parts, you may not be able to follow the rest. If you are new to Burning Man jargon, you can find out little glossary at the bottom of this article.
How Did We Decide to Go to Burning Man?
Let me introduce myself first. My name is Duygu. I graduated from Brown University in 2006 and I live in Istanbul, Turkey. I got married to my husband Bilgehan in 2018.
At our wedding, one of Bilgehan’s dearest friends Oktay, who knew I dreamt of going to Burning Man, said, “My wedding gift to you will be taking you to Burning Man.” Yes, we are totally blessed to have such great friends.
While we paid for our own tickets, Oktay made most of the preparations for us which is the most difficult part. I should also note that getting Burning Man tickets is so hard that finding tickets for us to purchase was enough of a gift in itself.
Oktay was able to find us tickets sort of the last minute, so the airfare was just too expansive. So we ended up taking a two-day trip with various layovers through Istanbul-Stockholm-Helsinki-San Francisco. As a result, we made it to Burning Man on Wednesday morning, 3 days after it started.
What is Burning Man
I’m not sure if it can fit into a single definition. Everyone experiences Burning Man differently. Ask a hundred Burners and you will get a hundred different responses. Some think of it as a party, others as meditation, and still others as a family…
As for me, I think of Burning Man as a new civilization. It demonstrates all elements that define a society: There are nuclear families, extended families, a shared identity, traditions, rituals and a shared moral code. It has a settlement called the Black Rock City with protected borders and over 70,000 citizens. While it mimics a standard societal system, the nature of these elements is very different than what we are used to. Families are not formed by blood, things that are looked upon with disgrace such as nudity outside are welcomed here, and other things that are glorified outside like money are useless here. So in a way, it is a new civilization.
So calling Burning Man a festival is extremely reductive. Yes, it offers the best entertainment the world has ever seen but that is only one of the many pillars that is built on. Art, entertainment, communal life, spirituality, open-mindedness, and creativity make up the cultural fabric of this civilization.
Burning Man is perceived as a wild place but that is a very shallow approach if you don’t know where it is coming from. One of the biggest values of Burning Man is creating a safe space for everyone. While in our everyday societies the moral code is determined much by cultural taboos (about nudity, sexual preferences, jobs, appearances, etc), here the morality is about being absolutely judgment-free about personal choices. As a result, people lower their guards, open up their hearts and let themselves free.
What would you do with yourself if no one would ever judge you for your personal preferences? Perhaps this is where the entertainment aspect begins. Everything is magical at Burning Man. There is an infinite amount of stimuli. And you have all the freedom in the world to do what you want with it. You feel an explosion of happiness, hope, and inspiration.
This is exactly why everyone has a unique experience of Burning Man. Nowhere else in the world you can be so free in your choices. Everyone follows their own inner call. Some find themselves at the fighting pit, others dancing naked on an art car or handing out warm omelets at dusk. Here they are all equally acceptable ways to participate in this society and all are typical Burning Man. In other words, Burning Man is what you make of it.
Ten Golden Principles of Burning Man
While it is an incredibly free place, there are also very strict rules, all of which are to build a community of respect and harmony. We can call these the code of ethics of Burning Man:
1- Radical self-reliance: There is no infrastructure like running water or electricity at Black Rock City, which is where Burning Man happens. You are face-to-face with the challenges of the desert. You have to think about your meals, water and shelter, etc. So you have bring with you everything you will need to survive here. You can read about How to Prepare for Burning Man here.
2- Decommodification: It is forbidden to use money or sell anything in Black Rock City.
3- Gifting: Burning Man encourages the citizens of the Black Rock City to engage in acts of kindness without expecting anything in return. Everyone strives to contribute to the community in some way. Some people volunteer to work as staff, others throw parties or BBQs, while others create awesome art. Everyone contributes in their own way.
It is very impressive the extents people go to prepare gifts for this community. I have seen tens of thousands of dollars worth art cars and camp sites. But you can also contribute by doing something that doesn’t cost much like braiding people’s hair for one hour.
4- Leaving No Trace: A lot of effort is put into protecting nature and minimizing Burning Man’s impact on the desert. Things that don’t belong there shouldn’t be left there. That even includes spilling drinking water on the ground. It didn’t come from there, so by introducing it you are harming the ecosystem. You should pick up even the smallest glitter that falls off your face, because it simply doesn’t belong there. You collect not only your trash, but everything including you brought there your body hair, all wastewater, absolutely anything and everything you can think of, and take it back home with you.
5- Radical Inclusion: Anyone and everyone—all individuals with disabilities, the elderly, children, homosexuals, asexuals, hijabis or nudists, etc.—is considered a valuable part of this community and the people of Black Rock should embrace everyone without any prejudice.
6- Radical Self-Expression: What you wear, how you decorate your bike or your camp are all ways of expressing yourself. You are encouraged to get creative and limitless. By expressing we create art and also contribute to other people’s experiences at Burning Man.
7- Communal Effort: Looking out for one another, creating art together, collaborating is very important. People also have a deep sense of belonging here. There is a saying, “The playa provides,” which refers to the culture of taking care of each other here. If you ever need something during Burning Man, just ask around and someone will find you a solution. Say, your one week’s worth of food got somehow ruined and you have nothing to eat for the rest of Burning Man. You will find food, maybe even more than you need.
8- Civic Responsibility: Individuals need to keep in mind the law and social good in all their actions and behaviors. This is common sense and should be valid everywhere, but nevertheless a reminder is always useful.
9- Participation: The principle that the change in the world starts with the individual. As stated in the Burning Man principles, “We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.”
10- Immediacy: Not being in the moment detaches us from our inner world, the people around us, and nature. Burning Man tells us to be in the moment, not just physically but also mentally.
We can definitely say that everyone was usually pretty loyal to these ten principles.
The Tickets Cost $450 but You Don’t Get Any Infrastructure or Entertainment
Yes, you read it correctly: In exchange for $450 all you get is the good old porta-potties. They don’t provide you with any electricity, running water, concerts or other activities.
The entire city is set up by participants. So you bring your own electricity, water, kitchen, activities, etc. The environmental rules are quite strict, which brings about an extra workload. For instance, MOOP (matter out of place) is a highly sensitive issue. Want to shower? That water cannot touch the ground. You have to store the wastewater and take it back home with you. Similarly, you can never light a fire on the ground and you have to take all your trash back home.
You have all these exhausting rules, which are also necessary. You have to prepare very well and it is very far from comfortable. As you can see, from start to finish, Burning Man is quite a laborious and inconvenient affair.
It may sound crazy, but it is thankfully so! Because in a way, this brings about natural selection. People who can’t be bothered or obsessive types think this is a bit too much and decide not to go. Thus possible problem makers are filtered out.
The living conditions have encouraged people to come together and build theme camps, shortly known as camps. It would be very hard and costly for individuals to set up generators, kitchens, and showers and to store wastewater on their own. As a result, camps have emerged to do these things collectively.
Of course, this is not just a pragmatic union. Participating in Burning Man with the same people year after year, you become a family. You have fun together, you are deeply moved together, you look after each other, take care of one another.
Burning Man is not a festival. They do not book performances nor provide entertainment. Yet, I don’t think I have ever had more fun or seen a bigger performance in my entire life. Burning Man is by far the most extreme and strongest expression of the transformative power of art.
When you first arrive, you are absolutely spellbound. Especially when you ride your bike into the Playa on your first night, it feels like having crossed into a different dimension or planet. The darkness and vacuum of the desert also have a magnifying effect. Tens of thousands of lit-up bikes and people are on the moving around you like a horde of fireflies. Art cars pass by left and right. You pedal through the installations and works of art in the playa. It is really really fascinating.
All activities are organized by participants! They spend thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for this!
We are talking about a 24/7 whirlwind of activities, an explotion of performances which are all organized by the participants.
But do not think of art only as of just the music, sculptures and the installations at the playa. Here every person is a performance in itself in the way they dress, act, be present. All Burners try to enrich each other’s experiences. People make plenty of preparations both collectively as camps and individually.
So everyone is a participant, a curator, an artist and sometimes the work of art itself all at the same time. It is quite a revolutionary approach.
How Do You Become a Part of the Performance?
People offer their talents and resources to others without expecting anything in return. For instance, if you are good at reading fortunes, you can contribute by doing that; or you can offer people a small recital by playing tunes on the pianos placed on the playa. You can amaze people with your costume. You can sing or read poetry at open mic stages. When you meet new people, you can offer them small and unexpected gifts.
We brought 500 evil eye beads with us from Turkey to give out to people that we meet (the traditional evil eye beads, usually made out of blue glass in the shape of an eye, are believed to protect you from evil and envious eyes and keep negative energy out of your way). We also filled water guns with sunscreen to offer a squeeze to people who were scorched by the sun out there.
Imagine the happy feeling you would get if someone came up to you and said, “Your cheeks look a bit red, I thought you might want some sunscreen” and the fun you would have if the sunscreen were squirted from a tiny water gun. Ta da! You yourself have become a performance that enriches others’ experiences!
The Camps are the Real Deal
Camps (theme camps) usually take on much more complex activities. They spend thousands and even hundred thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to build art cars, give out free food, set up air-conditioned dormitories, etc. Those with more modest resources may set up low-cost things like hair-braiding stations.
Ultimately, everyone contributes to the community and no one expects money or any other favor in return. Everything is free of charge and available for all. Everyone has a single motive: Contributing to the Burning Man community.
How Do We Follow the Activities?
All camps submit to Burning Man information about the location/time of the activities they will organize. And Burning Man compiles all this information in a book and an app. Upon entry, you are provided with the program booklet, but its content is a bit more limited. It is best to download the app before you get to Burning Man.
How Does One Day Pass At Burning Man
Most people prefer stay up during the night and sleep thought the heat during the day
The sunset and sunrise are the most beautiful times of the day in the desert so, like most people, we tried to catch both. So we would be up until the sunrise, then we would go to sleep around 7 or 8 am. This way we also were sleeping though the day time heat as much as we could. However, around 11 am it got too hot in our shift pod and we had to wake up. Do not expect to sleep much at Burning Man.
Upon waking up would escape to our friend’s van and together we’d prepare breakfast. It would last till 1 p.m. so it was more like lunch. Then we would get on our bikes and pedal from camp to camp to join their activities. Or if there was an activity at our camp, we’d stay and work there like attending the bar.
Day Time Activities
If you want to party, you can find a party any time of the day. It doesn’t matter if it is 2 pm. But we preferred to use the day to hang out at different camps, attending their activities and meeting new people.
There are so many great activities at the camps; seminars, workshops, games, treatments, shows, etc… You can attend download the Burning Man has an app called Time to Burn where all activities as listed. The abundance and diversity of activities will blow your mind. So we would hop on our bikes and ride them from one activity to the other. Most of the time we couldn’t make it to our intended destinations because we would get lured into different camps on the way. 🙂 Very often there will be a person with a megaphone inviting you to the activity at their camp. That is how ended up at the wife-carrying contest where we won the trophy in the photo.
Shared Dinner at Camp
At our camp, dinner started around 7 p.m. If we were on duty, we would need to come an hour or so earlier to help. Most of the meals prepared at the camp were effortless meals but since the meal would be for 25-30 people it still took some time.
If we were not on duty, we were always around 30 minutes late and all the food would be already gone.
After dinner, you feel a bit sluggish. Of course, the sleep you get in the morning is not quite enough. So we used to take a nap for two hours or so after dinner. We would sleep like sailors, in multiple shifts, one shift in the afternoon and one in the evening.
Nights at the Playa
When we woke up, we would get on our bikes and go straight to the playa. The playa is so beautiful and stimulating at night that sometimes we would do nothing but ride our bike around aimlessly for hours. Other times we would park our bikes, climb on the installations and just chat, or chase after art cars, find DJs, etc… Then people would start gathering somewhere; we’d get curious, we’d go there and join them… We’d go up to the Temple and get wrapped up in our emotions. Until the sun rises you enjoy a mix of experiences and feelings.
There is no guidelines to how to spend a day at Burning Man. The simple answer is to say yes to every call.
Who Is Burning Man For?
So much talk has been going on about whether Burning Man is for hippies or for Billionaires. Everyone is welcomed here. In spirit, it is very hippie & artsy but surely it is getting more and more elite. San Francisco’s rise as a tech hub a direct effect on the matter. Burning Man is trying to find a balance between keeping Burners content and adjusting to the changing world.
Here is one of the most frequently asked questions: It is one thing for the tickets to be paid, but doesn’t it contradict the Burning Man principles for them to be so expensive?
Burning Man is a non-profit but as you might imagine it has a pretty good turnover. According to their 2017 tax returns, Burning Man made $36.7 million in revenue. This money is used to run the organization. Any remaining balance is kept for the following year’s event. Let us not forget, every year an entire city is built almost from scratch. Even a temporary airport is set up in there to serve during Burning Man. It is an incredibly big operation. It requires a large team and a budget.
Consequently, Burning Man has a full-time team on board throughout the whole year. When I asked someone who worked there, I was told there are about 200 paid employees. This is based on somebody’s statement, so I’m not sure how accurate it is. There are also thousands of volunteers who work there, but it turns out that paid employees take on some of the more critical roles.
In addition to the expenses for personnel and setting up the city, Burning Man also provides funds for art projects. For instance, an artist from Turkey applies to Burning Man about the idea of a jellyfish installation. There are many expense items such as the artist’s living and travel expenses, the costs for the work of art and transportation. Burning Man helps out with these expenses, but I’m not sure how and how much of them. Maybe they only allocate some funds for the work of art and travel.
To encourage the participation of people from all walks of life, they also support the participation of people who can’t afford it. For instance, they had covered all the expenses, including airfare, for a group of participants from Africa.
They also need to raise funds to rent and clean the land upon which the city is built, for health services and other services to be offered in there.
I think this is what the ticket fees are used for. I don’t know if there is ever a remaining balance or not, I have no idea. But in the future I’m expecting more creative and equalizing fundraising solutions from such an organization.
Frequently Asked Questions
They dislike social media, especially influencers. In fact, in the previous years they had Internet, but they didn’t this year. There are several reasons for that:
– It detaches people from the moment.
– Photos are simply insufficient to do this place justice.
– Influencers and celebrities come here with sponsorships and use this place to make money. It is completely wrong to come here sponsored by Victoria’s Secret, using the works of arts as a background to market products, but unfortunately people do this. This year Diplo arrived at Burning Man on a Popeyes plane. He posed in front of the huge-ass Popeyes logo on the plane with two huge Popeyes bags in his hands and shared it on Instagram. Not cool.
This is like placing dynamite into the values of Burning Man. It is not just the influencers who act so ridiculously. But when they do it, it is transformed into a global scale.
Burning Man takes place on federal land in Nevada. Which means anything except for alcohol is illegal. The bars inside serve alcohol for free. In the U.S. the legal drinking age is 21. You have to show your ID at the bars to drink. They also accept a photo of your ID on your phone, instead of the actual ID. Obviously, this place is not exempt from such regulations. There is police at the entrance of events and inside the events. There is also undercover police. There are volunteer Burning Man Rangers, who serve as a buffer between security forces and participants. They are on patrol 24/7 on their own vehicles.
Children and the Elderly
There were more children than we had expected at Burning Man. Those who were once young people with flowers in their hair in the 1960’s are coming to Burning Man with their grandchildren today. You can easily see people from three different generations.
There are campsites and activities for families with children. Families take children to age-appropriate places. I don’t think they fully understand what is going on around them, but I’m sure they find it very interesting. That said, I wouldn’t want to take my own kid there. Not because I wouldn’t want them to see the things they’d see, but because I wouldn’t want to expose them to the unsanitary conditions of the desert. I guess I’m not so open-minded enough regarding these matters.
There are also many participants around ages 70-80. And some of them even volunteer to work. Burning Man is really an age-less place. The only condition is being open-minded.
Burning Man openheartedly discusses the environmental impact of the event.
The event’s impact on the desert is minimized with the collective effort of all the participants. As I explained above, people make sure not a single thing that doesn’t belong remains there. You won’t be able to see a single piece of trash on the ground at any point of the event. If a loose feather or something from someone’s costume flies off, someone would be sure to pick it up. After the camp is taken down, all camp members line up shoulder-to-shoulder and thoroughly clean up the entire area.
After everyone leaves, Burning Man teams do the same thing; they line up shoulder-to-shoulder, clean up the entire city step by step, which takes about a month. They also restore the changes done by vehicles and bikes on the territory. During this process, they also assess and grade each camp site’s cleanliness and publish a map. Camps that appear green on the map are invited again and red ones are banned from participating.
Burning Man is not only concerned with the environmental issues on the playa. They don’t want participants to clean up the playa and pile up all their trash in the containers of a nearby town. Because that would also constitute Burning Man pollution. It is also frowned upon and people are warned about urinating in the bushes on the way. But some people still violate these rules.
Let us first warm up to these two terms: Grey Water– Wastewater such as water from the sink, washing machines or dishwashers. It is the participants’ duty to dispose of the grey water they produce. Black Waterrefers to the toilet water with urine and feces. These two terms are used to refer to the toxicity of the water.
They deal with the waste from the porta potties set up in the area. But if you are not going to use them, you need to come up with your own solution. And you are responsible for disposing of your waste in line with to the rules.
Looking at photos and its reflections in the press may look Burning Man as a crazy festival or party. This is true to a certain extent; Burning Man is indeed a marginal place and a great party, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. It can never be reduced to just that.
I don’t blame anyone who thinks that way. At the end of the day, Burning Man isn’t s something you can fully grasp without experiencing it for yourself. Despite having several friends who had gone to Burning Man many times, I have to admit that even we didn’t understand it fully either. But that only occured to me after having been there.
As they say, “Burning Man is what you make of it.” For some it is a therapy, a way to let some steam off. Others find a sense of belonging. It is love, folly, exhaustion, challenging the limits, emotional breakdown or resurrection all once. It is a magical place that is going to give you whatever it is that you came to with the intention to get.
It is really a place woven with love. People really approach one another with kindness, compassion, and respect. Prejudices is not allowed in there. And those who can’t handle this much freedom and open-mindedness do not come back, leading to a sort of natural selection.
The weird thing is, while you may not feel like a love bug on your first days and do certain things just to adapt and go along with everyone else, in a few days you see your heart opening up. If you don’t believe it, let’s hear it from the infamous Facebook enemies:
For those who are not familiar with the story, here is a short version of the big fight: Facebook’s founders were roommates at Harvard. Evidently, they had “stolen” the idea from ConnectU, the company of their Harvard classmates the Winklevoss twins. Not only did they not talk to each other, but they also shredded each other to pieces at court and eventually Facebook had to pay the Winklevosses $65 million. The great enemies ran into each other at Burning Man.
Moskovitz: “These guys are among the only people on earth I might describe as real antagonists in my life or even enemies, but on playa my first instinct was that I quite obviously needed to introduce myself and start with hugs [You meet and greet people by giving hugs instead of shaking hands].They had just arrived so I wasn’t sure how they’d react, but they were very gracious at the time and I knew they’d understand more deeply by the time they left.
Almost immediately when I got back, I had a Facebook friend request from Tyler [Winklevoss] and we started a thread mutually extolling the virtues of the festival. In no uncertain terms, he described a spiritual experience.I had created all kinds of dark fantasies about how meeting them would go (Tyler assures me it would have been cordial regardless), but on playa it was laughably clear. There, we were all part of the same community. We were always part of the same community.” Source: Business Insider
I think this is the greatest success of Burning Man: Creating a new civilization that resets the mind to new beginnings. It is really magical that this experience can truly transform you so that you would hug a person whom you’d wish to strangle the day before.
Burning Man Glossary
Here are some definitions to help you through this article, so you don’t ask yourself “What is this girl talking about?”
Black Rock City (BRC)– Where Burning Man takes place. An immense city is built in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It lasts for around 10 days.
In addition to this, there are many other Burning Man gatherings in Africa, Israel, China, Miami and various other places.
Playa – The area where you can find the installations, the temple and the man at the BRC. If you have seen a map of BRC, it is the open space in the inner circle.
Deep Playa – The farthest corners of the playa.
Theme Camp – They are shortly referred to as camps. The camps logde, eat and survive together at Burning Man. Also the activities and entertainment at Burning Man are organized by these theme camps. In other words, camps are the fundamental units that realize and sustain Burning Man.
They are called theme camps because they revolve around a theme of their choice. For example our camp was called Pickleback Mountain so we operated a bar where we served pickle juice and whiskey. Some of my friends were at a camp called Bee Charge. Their art car was in the shape of bees and camp decorations were black and yellow.
Art car (or Mutant Vehicle) – Functional vehicles that have been turned into works of art. Magical things! Some of them feature sound systems and lighting, starting a party wherever they go. Some are simply works of art that you can’t take your eyes off of.
Burner– Someone who has graduated from Burning Man 🙂
Man – The Man. In 1986, Burning Man founders Larry Harvey and Jerry James met up with their friends on the beach and burned a wooden man figure to let go of the burden of a relationship that was over. Over the years it became a tradition and eventually became the symbol of the event. The man is burned on the night before the last day, on Saturday. Its design changes every year.
Temple – A non-religious structure of deep spiritual meaning. It is filled with emotion. The design changes every year, giving it a different name and theme. This year (2019) it was called the Temple of Direction.
MOOP (Matter out of Place) – Things that do not belong to the desert and pollute the playa. This is a rather broad concept. You shouldn’t even spill clean water on the ground, because the water doesn’t belong there so you would harm the ecosystem.
Ranger –After years of participating in Burning Man, some people volunteer to be Rangers in service of other burners’ safety and well-being. Whenever you have a problem, you reach out to rangers. For instance, lost your passport? There is a police station inside, but going to a ranger first is a better idea. Do you need to contact your family because of an emergency? Go to a ranger. And so on and so on.
Now that you have the necessary vocabulary, we can roll on. 🙂