Burning Man – A model for an Altruistic Society
Burning man is one of the most exquisitely unique experiences of my life, and, assuredly, of anyone’s. Tens of thousands of people flock to Black Rock City – a desolate, empty desert plain devoid of any whisper of plant life, just a sea of dust and rugged cracks in the dry ground, totally moonlike, flat, with mountains ranging on all sides – to set up camps, thousands of them, and promote an alternative life-style and, actually live it.
Millions of dollars go to work producing some of the largest-scale art projects in the world. Groups, organizations and individuals work to create spectacular, visually complex and interactive art pieces simply for the edification and wonderment of others (and of course, themselves). Focusing on values of public art, community and civic participation, there is surely something there that will stagger even the most protected heart.
Burning man operates on a gift system, not exchange where you present a gift in return for getting one, but simply as a system of giving- you give and you get and you give without thought of getting, but of making another person glow with what you’ve been able to provide. Massages, specialized information, foot baths (which, after the dust in the desert, are mind-blowing), food (snowcones!), palm reading, tea-time, stories, artifacts, a smile. Gifts can be anything and camps get together to produce massive amounts of free, happily gifted products and experiences. Once you’re there, the only thing you can pay for is ice and coffee at Center Camp; you survive, ecstatically, by the goodwill of others and your own.
There is no one-philosophy of burning man. It is a compendium of beliefs, interests, and values of over 50,000 souls that come every year. Open-mindedness is a must to survive, happiness (or not), kindness, and love seem to pervade everyone’s sense of other. You can be as involved or as hermetic as you like. People are out really roughing it, or sitting comfortably in an RV or large tent structure; some even show up to Burning Man with just a sleeping pad – or nothing, and see where their adventure takes them. By and large it is a community of happy, caring people, sharing generally similar values and interests that create a city-large effect of a family community. It is at its simplest definition based on altruism, the idea that everyone helps everyone else to survive and have a good time. It’s a place where you can be yourself, or be someone else. People try and make you feel as comfortable as possible, with a lot of things around you that aren’t necessarily what you’re into, it can be refreshing to experience boundary-pushers with an open, clear mind, and a pressure-free community around you.
Workshops are held to stimulate the mind as all of the other sensual and visual senses are satisfied. On a number of topics, workshops are all free and open and professionally conducted. There was a rumor I heard that TED talks developed out of one of Burning Man’s lecture series’. You can learn Tantric massage, learn to kiss, dance, sing, share, participate in group yoga and meditation, talk science, biology, philosophy, physics with professionals, learn about subjects you didn’t know existed, and participate in highly specialized workshops. At camps you can create your own Jorts (jean shorts) and embellish them with all sorts of fancy accoutrements, you can adopt a gnome, fly on a trapeze, ride a bicycle into the air like the Wicked Witch of the West, or sit and reflect in any number of quiet, special reflecting places.
Any large-scale festival will have around 4-5 stages. At Burning Man, there are about 30-40 stages with huge musical acts such as Shpongle, Mimosa, Beats Antique, (well, way too many to name, obviously) but the music goes on at all hours and the crowds, because they are spread across so many different stages, are way smaller than if you bought tickets to a solo show or attended a music festival. The effect is wonderful – you can move from one type of music to another in minutes. You can stand in the middle of this moon-scape and follow the sounds coming from an art-car and stage an impromptu dance party, or you can gravitate to a large or small stage and bob to the beat with plenty of other enthusiastic listeners.
People come from all over the world to share Burning Man with each other. Pictures say it better than words in this case.
During the day there are any number of activities, art-watching, workshops, getting your massage or taco or sitting and drinking Turkish coffee while trying to interpret your friend’s grounds. Black Rock City becomes so huge, you can’t see everything in one day. You can’t even see everything in the week-long stay. Walk around all day, every day and you’ll probably scrape off 30% of what there is to see (not to mention do). Hang out, stay cool, eat a camp dinner, and wait for night to fall.
This is when things get incredibly weird. The desert becomes so impossibly dark that as a safety precaution everyone must deck themselves out with light sticks or other glowing technologies. Those who wander without their lights, or forget them are labeled “darkies,” though people are kind enough that when a darkie is spotted, a donation of lights comes from several outstretched hands. Art cars that were immobile though appreciated during the day, come alive with lights and full speaker sounds blasting electronic, hip-hop, dub-step and other types of music. They take the playa (as the desert is called) and mesh themselves in with the other art-turned-light-sculptures that have been activated by the disappearance of sun.
This video is based on Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go, and does a great job of capturing the experience, and ideas, of Burning Man. At least, some of them. Check it out: