It's not easy to adequately describe it to those who have never been.
For a week out of each year, a city of 50,000 inhabitants appears like a mirage in the midst of the alkali flats of north-western Nevada. Vast migrations of laden cars, RVs, and mutant vehicles converge upon the Black Rock Desert where a caravanserai of geodesic domes and pavilions is erected by this horde of technological Bedouin, faces masked and goggled against the harsh desert elements of sun, wind and dust.
Encircling the eponymous effigyThe Manis a vast expanse of playa that indeed lends the illusion of a broad beach stretching to the horizon where it meets mountains that burn beneath the midday sun. It is an ideal gallery for the myriad art installations that float in surreal suspension between earth and sky.
But like any desert ecosystem, it is at night that the city truly comes to life, though ironically, the sense is less desert, more deep sea: Phantasmagorical vehicles and bicycles drift by, illuminating the profound darkness with their own electroluminescence. Schools of pedestrians part to make way or perhaps board an art bus to ride the kilowatt-per-channel leviathan to some distant exhibition or dance scene.
What really sets Burning Man apart from any other art or music festival or rave in the desert are the peoplethe Burners themselvesand the culture they espouse. Collectively, they envision an event where there are no spectators, only participants. The Burner ethos is one of radical self-reliance tempered with selflessnessindividuality and creative self-expression balanced with civic responsibility, individual respect, and communal collaboration. The degree to which this has been realized is perhaps most evident in the event’s inherent economy: at Burning Man, no money is exchanged, nor are items bartered; rather, it is a gifting society where goods and services are given freely and received with an awareness of the personal connection that results.
Each year, I leave Burning Man with a renewed sense of humanity’s creative potential and with its capacity to coexist despite a chaos of conflicting interests; and indeed, with its ability to transcend such discord in a manner that further enriches the culture and so inspires yet greater creative achievement. Burning Man is both permanent and ephemeral: much of its art, its Temple and most significantly, its primary symbolThe Manare consumed by flame on the final nights. I think this immolation compels each participant to deeply internalize the experiences of the past week and to deliver some sense of this to the world beyond the Black Rock Desert where an entire city built on ideals has vanished almost overnight.
By Monday or Tuesday afternoon, we join the exodus and leave the playa. Along the three-day drive home, I am struck by how differently I regard those whom I encounter on the road, and as a result, how much more openly I behave towards themcuriosity and friendliness replace suspicion and prejudice. Motorists, gas station attendants, motel clerks, people walking their dogsI feel a kinship that previously I had intellectually acknowledged but seldom embodied. It is as if, caught up in the Maya of day-to-day life, I had somehow forgotten what I once knew from a time predating my own origina sense of unity, a feeling that is both comfortingly familiar and exhilaratingly new. I think the challenge each Burner faces is how to retain and nurture this awareness throughout the year and, in the course of casual interaction, how to cultivate it in others.
Considering all my encounters and experiences these years of attending Burning Man, you’ll find comparatively few photos here. (Truth is, I was just too involved to drag the camera along!) I regard this as an opportunity to express through daily deed and action, the ethics fundamental to Burner culture. Whereas a visual documentary taken out of context might have aesthetic merit, it is inadequate for conveying the transformative potential of the ideals that underlie Burning Man. Art may motivate, but societal change occurs only through actual practice.