burning man #1

09.30.22

reflecting on what probably can't be fully digested nor put into words as it's something to experience in its entirety.


'how was burning man?' lingers in the air the month post burn. those who didn't go are curious for a story or two, and those who did revel in their own experience with a search for understanding to share their perspective in a way no one will fully be able to hear. this video is a satiritical take that represents some truth to how challenging it can be to answer that question.

burning man is a week long pop up city of 70,000 guided by principles

having arrived early for the build period to help set up camp, i have a deeper appreciation of how much of a production the whole experience is in order to support 70,000+ people in the desert. between roads, water, waste, health, and general support, it takes a team of rangers six months to start preparing.

hosted on the playa, or a dried lake bed, the radial city blocks are filled with themed camps, the edges are lined with mutant art cars, and the open space in the center is an interactive public art gallery. everyone gets around on bikes, and each camp is like it's own universe.

for the week, set values challenges a way of living for the week. for example, there is no money for anything. everything is a gift: food, drink, music, and experiences. the only cash exchange is for ice with even the coffee being free.

the values include:

  1. radical inclusion: everyone is welcome as they are.
  2. gifting: no cash nor bartering exchange. everything is freely gifted.
  3. decomodification: there are no commercial sponsorships, advertising, nor brand presence. everything is a participiatory experience.
  4. radical self reliance: to survive in the desert, everyone has to figure it out.
  5. radical self-expression: everyone has the liberty and is encouraged to be whoever and however they want during the week.
  6. communal effort: there is a collaborative base in cooperation and sharing interaction in the experimental spaces.
  7. civic responsibility: following laws and taking responsibility for general well being of people.
  8. leaving no trace: leaving the place better than it was found is hard, but there is definitely to be no matter out of place on the playa.
  9. immediacy: holding a present experience.
  10. participation: everyone is invited to work, to play, take an active role and contribute.

^ i really appreciated this last one as it seemed like 80%+ of people there meaningfully added something to make black rock city, which electrified the city from action rather than passive consumption.

two main focal points: the man burn, and the temple, which also burns.

coming into it, i thought the man burning was more people v. corporate environment, likeing burning "the man." i learned in a chronology of the event i was wrong as it is more a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life of an individual.

with each year passing, there are things that come and go, and the burn is a reminder for an old skin to shed and new and authentic self to stand to be built. similar to the mythical idea of a phoenix.

the temple is another main build, which burns sunday. this is a space to celebrate loss. people bring photos and offerings and spend time to remember what's no longer here.

for many, it is a big production

with this being satya's (my co-founder, and roomie) tenth year, he likes to throw down. with months of prep and final few weeks of help, three main projects i helped with were:

one of his intentions is to help create a sandbox for speakers to share what's on their mind, not what's precanned in a ted talk script, as well as to invite honest discussions that could not happen if not for the shared moment at burning man. one of the highlights, for example, was open ai ceo sam altman's discussion with android jones, an artist, on the future of art given the recent dalle-2 model release.

oh, and everything at his camp is hosted in a 100 ft pyramid that has custom geometric projection mapping at night. this is one of the craziest things built in the city.

having arrived a week early, i also helped my camp, hotel california with their week of build. five twenty-hour days included a whole range of different tasks from setting up the kitchen and shade infrastructure for the tents, assembling the timber structure, working on lighting and audio cable running, as well as assembling a 1400 pound steel fire pit.

hotel california's structure is inspired by the voxel.

#top three highlights from my experience

after the first day, where we had an opening party with musicians, aeralists, two other art car sound systems plugging in, and hundreds of people roll through the hotel, it started to make sense why people put so much into it.

the week was filled with a mix of solo adventures, group hangouts, spontaneous moments, and exploring. my favorite three moments included.

  1. camping with hotel california and making 300 golden tacos

2. aztec sunset ceremony

the sunsets were sublime in the desert, and one in particular was special when it was paired with a traditional music and dance filled aztec ritual honoring the cardinal directions, the land, and the spirit of the sun. hosted by earth guardians, the ritual was kickedoff with copal blessing and cleansing, and followed with drum based rhythmic dance. each of the three parts was led by someone different.

i had been able to take part in one before as a spectator at the shaper sacramento conference, but this was different as the final dance was taught to everyone who could participate with the crew. the final dance was called the coyote dance and represents the trickster within ourselves, where stories become more potent than truth.

3. community grieving ceremony

this one surprised me. it was hosted within anahasana village, where there were multiple camps sharing space and infrastructre, which made it a fun stop.

this year there was an experimental dome dedicated to grieving. it was a sanctioned sister temple to the main empyrean temple. every day at sunset they would host a community grieving ceremony, partly inspired by the wild edge of sorrow, by francis weller.

across different cultures, there are rituals that bring entire communities to grieve with someone so they do not feel their loss shouldered alone nor the alienation of a different emotional state. this was a microcosm of that enabling others to scream, cry, shout, move, and express whatever wanted to come up.

getting to play the drums to kickoff the session, i appreciated how intentionality, space, and ritual helped create a pop up sacred space for expression. it welcomed a totalness that most gatherings do not, celebrating loss, and it felt meaningful in a way other experiences on the playa felt more hollow.

i'm left with asking why

why is it in the desert? no, this is not a logistics question. i understand where the extremity heightens the intensity of the experience with the lure of a tabla rosa to set the stage.

i'm more curious from a perspective of sustainability. for a principle based event filled with people claiming to do future oriented things for the world, the transport, diesel generators, rvs, and density of people make it one of the most unsustainble actions for a curiously little outcome other than individual enjoyment and experimentation confined to the one week on the playa.

moreso, what's the so what, what do people do the rest of the 51 weeks? watching so many talented bright people pour so much time and planning into organizing and building, i'm left wondering what's the so what here? so much goes into one week in retreat from the reality of the world to create a new one, where there seems to be so many other ways to invest in building community, art, and experimenting with gathering deserving a place in the "default" world to change what's really there and not what makes itself into a pop up.

being new to it, i'm appreciative of the amazing people who helped give a full welcome to what felt like a full experience.

i'm still on the fence if i will go next year, as it took a lot of resources, time, and energy, and i'm still uncertain the return of all of that investment. i like how one friend put it, every year he's on the fence, and it takes specific nudge to topple him one way or another.

i'm open to another burn, curious to contribute more, and simultaneously, content with a year's passing and not getting covered in dust.


if you liked this, have feedback, or more resources to share, send me a note.

h/t for all the people taking photos as i did not take a single one. hotel california camp provided it's own. this is sunset and the ceremony. playalchemist schedule was designed by carrie, photos of the pyarmid are from their gram, and the map is a general image that's been circulating via text. thank you to the dome guys for a camp dome. kickstarter for the temple, a photo of the man burn, and matt emmi with a photo from the org


made with 🖤 in sf.