World in Flames: Black Rock City’s Burning Man Festival
Burning Man is a radical event that takes place every year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. It starts on the last Monday in August, and goes until the first Monday in September. Over that week, thousands of people come from all over the world to build Black Rock City, a temporary city in the desert, and celebrate art, life, and culture together. Burning Man defines itself on its website as “A vibrant participatory metropolis generated by its citizens.”
Burning Man prides itself on the 10 principles that are followed by both its organizers and participants; Radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy are all actively practiced by attendees (known as ‘Burners’).
These principles aren’t just lofty mumbo-jumbo — organizers spend the whole year trying to come up with ways to turn their vision into action. Cash transactions are forbidden between participants, instead, people barter for things that they need, or gift them freely. There are small cafes located within Black Rock City that do accept cash, but the profits are all donated to local schools and charities. As well, attendees are encouraged to support themselves while in Black Rock City by bringing in all their own supplies, and the Leave No Trace campaign aims to return the desert to a better condition than before the event.
First held at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, Burning Man started as a Summer Solstice celebration organized by Larry Harvey and Jerry James. The next four Burning Man events took place in Baker Beach, before it moved to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in 1990. In 1995, a small cash entrance fee was charged for the first time, and since then, the fee has been increasing steadily- a 2015 entrance ticket will set you back $390. Tickets are available to all, but the priority given to veteran Burners sometimes makes it a bit difficult to get a ticket if you’re a newbie.
Burning Man primarily features outsider and visionary art, although anyone can display anything that they choose. Each year’s event is themed, which gives focus to the exhibitions. The theme for 2015 is Carnival of Mirrors. Albeit the art created each year is different, there are a few recurring elements. Two things featured each year are the Man and the Temple, both of which are ritually burned on the last weekend. Every year, a different artist is invited to design and build the Temple, which serves as a focal point and community space for the entire week.
How to Get There
If you choose to attend Burning Man, be prepared for a week of radical art and self-sufficiency. The principle of Leave No Trace is not taken lightly, and attendees should be prepared to eat, sleep, and bathe without leaving a trace in the desert. Even waste water is disposed of in an environmentally friendly way — there are volunteers that collect waste water, but often people will evaporate it by putting it on a tarp in the sun.
Volunteering at Burning Man is an unforgettable experience, as Black Rock City operates entirely on volunteers and people come from all over the world to contribute to the experience in their own way. If you’re too far away to get to Nevada, Burning Man also supports the existence of other similar festivals like Kiwiburn (New Zealand), and AfrikaBurn (South Africa).
Some things that veteran Burners insist are absolutely mandatory are plenty of water (duh), as well as plastic bags to keep your feet dry in case it rains. Carrying a water bottle with you at all times can help make sure you stay hydrated during the scorching hot days. Another handy thing to have is a bandana, so you can wrap it around your face to keep out the dust, which is no joke — sandstorms can whip up any time of day or night.
It’s also important to carry a light with you at night — although Burning Man is generally a safe environment, there have been some road accidents over the years. Lighting up your car, bike, and body will help ensure your safety at night. Happy Burning!