All photo credits in this post: Richard Power/Burning Man 2011
[NOTE: I am honored that this piece is cross-posted at Buzzflash/Truthout (See Burning Man 2011: Primal Culture and Core Civilization as a Moveable Feast). Buzzflash/Truthout is one of the great bastions of alternative, progressive media in the USA. Furthermore, I am delighted that the publishing of this piece is concurrent with the phenomena known as Occupy Wall Street; because before this planetary crisis (economic, political and environmental) is over, citizens will likely be called on not only to occupy symbolically important squares and parks within their cities, but indeed to move whole cities. -- Richard Power]
Burning Man 2011: Primal Culture and Core Civilization as a Moveable Feast
By Richard Power
Burning Man isn’t what you think it is. Well, OK, Burning Man is more than you think it is. Much more. There is a powerful, new narrative developing within the legend of Burning Man, one that moves beyond Black Rock City and into the daily lives of some dedicated Burners. What is this new narrative? And what does it offer those working to overcome the challenges of this troubled era?
To answer these questions, I visited the offices of the Burning Man Project, on Market Street in downtown San Francisco, conducted numerous interviews, and yes, drove up into the Nevada desert to immerse myself in Burning Man 2011.
Ethos and Pathos
As 50,000 burners headed to Black Rock City, the National Guard was airlifting food and water to the citizens of thirteen Vermont towns cut-off for days, without electricity or potable water, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. (NYT, 9-1-11) With four months to go in 2011, the U.S.A. has experienced a record 10 weather disasters causing at least $1 billion each in damages. (AP, 9-3-11)
As 50,000 burners headed to Black Rock City, James Hansen, the NASA’s leading climate scientist was getting himself arrested outside the White House, in an act of civil disobedience aimed at urging President Obama to block the XL tar sands oil pipeline. Hansen says that the project would translate into “game over” for the climate upon which human civilization has been predicated for millennia. (Climate Progress, 6-25-11) Shouldn’t NASA’s leading climate scientist be inside the White House advising the President, rather than outside the White House, with thousands of other citizens, trying to get the President’s attention?
Within the dominant culture of “the default world” (a term many burners use to refer to the world beyond Black Rock City), the cable news networks recently offered 24 hour coverage of Hurricane Irene as it hit NYC, but did not mention climate change once; similarly, earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama dared not even mention it once in his 2011 State of the Union address.
Friends, we are on our own.
So what is the Burning Man ethos? What does it speak to the pathos of our time? What does it offer us at this perilous crossroads?
Do you remember the 1985 Australian film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome? Max, portrayed by Mel Gibson, comes to Bartertown, which is run on energy drawn from pig feces, and ruled over by the ruthless and beautiful Aunt Entity, portrayed by Tina Turner. The dystopian premise behind this and the other films in the Mad Max series is that our obsession with oil, and our refusal to develop alternate fuel resources, would lead to the collapse of civilization. It is does not require much of a stretch of the imagination to envision a dystopian post-Climate-collapse world, similar in its environmental harshness and its social barbarism. But what if, instead of a cruel world-view predicated on brute force and self-survival, we approached the collapse of it all as a call for a synergy of self-reliance and collectivity? What if we approached the collapse as a celebration of life instead of a fight to the death?
Burning Man is held in northern Nevada, on the Playa of the Black Rock Desert, a remnant of the Pleistocene Lake Lahontan.
The Playa is a wasteland, and as such it is an apt venue for these musings. After all, deforestation is one of the major contributing factors to human-induced Climate Crisis; and desertification is one of its major impacts. Both are advancing rapidly, and on a global scale.
At the entrance gate to Burning Man, a security officer took my ticket and inspected my car for contraband, and greeted me with a heart-felt “Welcome home” and a genuine embrace.
There is powerful magic and deep meaning in greeting 50,000 people in this manner. To be welcomed “home” into a nomad city on the desolation of the Playa. Yes, the truth is that culture and civilization if they are to survive must be a moveable feast, and as the movers of that feast, we must be adaptive, adventurous, expansive and inclusive. The Playa itself greeted me with an intense sand storm that led to several white-outs on the long drive from the entrance gate into Black Rock City.
A Zone of Freedom
At Burning Man, 50,000 people come together to build a city and life in it for a week, and then disband again. A month or so before Burning Man there is no sign of it on the Playa; a week or so after it, there is no trace of it left behind.
But in the course of that brief time, many burners report transformative experiences that re-define their life-journeys, and they return again and again to deepen the process. How is this possible?
What happens at Burning Man is that a zone of freedom is established; but it is not a platitudinous freedom, it is willful, conscious freedom: a freedom from routine and inhibition, a freedom for creative expression and self-discovery. On the Playa, there is both personal responsibility (not only to take care of oneself but to be part of the whole) and a radical acceptance (something more than tolerance) of the creative expression and self-discovery of others; and there is space for self-elected ambassadors of a range of human interests from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the blasphemous, from the beauteous to the obscene, and every combination thereof.
Asked about her “biggest life lesson learned” from the Burning Man experience, Marian Goodell, Burning Man’s Director of Business and Communications (one of the principle figures in its growth and success over the years) responded: “The power of creativity to change the way you feel about yourself and the way you interact with other people. And through that I learned about the importance of finding ways to communicate and connect with people, because once we do, there is a lot we can do together.”
Truth is Not Written on Stone Tablets
The framework of this Zone of Freedom is best epitomized in Burning Man’s Ten Principles:
• Radical Inclusion
• Radical Self-reliance
• Radical Self-expression
• Communal Effort
• Civic Responsibility
• Leaving No Trace
The “Ten Principles” are meant to be “descriptive, not prescriptive,” as Burning Man founder Larry Harvey remarked at a Playa press conference.
They evolved organically, from the nature of the shared experience, and they serve to describe the community to itself.
For Ria Megnin, burner, and freelance journalist, the “Ten Principles” are “what makes Burning Man stand out.”
“This is not a bunch of happy hippies or random ravers playing around with sparklies,” Ria told me, “this is an organization of people who know how to Get Stuff Done … we're able to return to the default world with a new sense of empowerment and possibility … it’s about making the world tangibly, lastingly better for each other and for future generations.”
In a pre-Playa interview, Goddell recounted the origins of the document.
“The group grew bigger and the questions grew more and more imposing … it became clear that there were certain types of questions that were coming from these regional contacts, as they were trying to develop their communities … guidance on a party or a gathering, and also some questions that grew up around personal dramas … [Larry] went to Mazatlan for a holiday [in 2004], having digested all of the exasperation that Andie Grace and I had been delivering to him … and he came back with this document, and Andie and I swooned, it was nine bullet points, and we teased him, ‘Well, gee, Larry, why would you not want ten.’ So he disappeared and came back a day later and had added a tenth, which he said was he favorite, although I can’t remember which one it was, he has played with the sequence a bit since …”
Burning Man’s "Ten Principles" shares a fundamental realization with the philosophy of anarchism: truth is not written on stone tablets, it evolves organically from the human heart/mind through direct experience.
Anarchy is misunderstood as a political ideology. It is not nihilism. "Conventional wisdom" (which I translate into "convenient cliche") projects the image of a masked bomb-throwing provocateur as the prototypical anarchist, but actually the face of Noam Chomsky would be more representative.
“As I understand the term ‘anarchism,’ it is based on the hope (in our state of ignorance, we cannot go beyond that),” Chomsky has said, “that core elements of human nature include sentiments of solidarity, mutual support, sympathy, concern for others, and so on.”
During the grim first decade of the 21st Century, I dived deeply into the history of the Spanish Civil War, looking for lessons learned and unlearned; I re-read George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Arturo Barea for a cross-section of bold, direct perspectives. One common theme in all that I read was that among the diverse factions within the popular front that stood against Franco and the Fascists, the anarchists were the most trustworthy, the most efficient, the fiercest, and yes, the most well-organized.
The Playa as Anti-Museum
How many times a year can you escape to the museum to see the art imprisoned there? And when you do you typically pre-purchase a ticket, and wait on a long line to get in, only to be rushed through the exhibit.
Well, at Burning Man, huge, audacious art installations are spread across the Playa. After dark, they are illuminated by rainbow LEDs powered by a solar array. Night and day, throughout the event, these installations are caressed by billowing sand storms and circled ceaselessly by burners on bicycles and mutant vehicles (which are art works in and of themselves, duly registered with the BRC Department of Mutant Vehicles).
“At Burning Man, the art is so sensational that it draws people to gather together and share an experience of curiosity, awe and wonder,” Josie Schimke of the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) explained. “Visiting works of art becomes the highlight of one’s day, and social interactions, connections and inspirations naturally grow out of the experience.”
What if life affirming, psyche-stimulating art that invited interaction and empowered your own creative expression, or that of your children or your parents, were being created on your downtown boulevards, in your parks, and in the courtyards of your neighborhoods?
That’s what BRAF was established to fund in world beyond the Playa
“Every year’s crop of grantees astonishes us with their diversity, both in their chosen media and strategies of bringing art into their communities,” Schimke remarked, “Each project responds to a community’s culture, needs and environment in an innovative and unique way.”
The BRAF web site documents many examples of BRAF funded art projects.
Burn Down the Borders
At a café on Valencia in the Mission, several weeks prior to Burning Man 2011, I sat down with Carmen Mauk, Executive Director of Burners Without Borders.
“When Katrina happened, and we Burners got involved after Burning Man 2005, I said ‘Whoa…’ I had been working in human rights and with people in poverty my whole life. The creativity we brought to the Gulf Coast was completely different than the other groups who were there. We were taking debris from the surrounding areas and creating beautiful art, and inviting the community to do the same, and then burning it on Saturday night. We had not done it before in a disaster zone, but it was something we knew to do as a community, but we weren’t just doing it for us, it was Radical Inclusion … So in addition to a million dollars worth of debris removal and reconstruction work, we contributed a real sense of culture and community.”
Since Katrina, Burners Without Borders has been working on the ground in the aftermath of catastrophes in Peru, Haiti, Joplin, Missouri and elsewhere.
“What we try to do is fill in the gaps as an organization, or create a new organization when needed,” Mauk explained, “so that things that wouldn’t ordinarily happen can happen.”
But Burners Without Borders are limited to disaster relief efforts.
“A woman in Detroit, doxie (little “d”), was upset about the homeless situation, and noticed some marginalized people who didn’t seem to be getting services, and so rather than become like a social worker about it, and blame and fight, she just started to getting materials that they might need for harsh winters and putting them in backpacks. She is been going on three years now, and has an entire community that supports her, she has so many donations … the city loves it …”
The Sun Delivers a Sustainable Burn
Black Rock Solar is another example of how burners are taking the inner fire lit on the Playa and using it to energize and illuminate their communities (in this instance, quite literally).
“We installing solar for non-profits, and tribes, and schools in northern Nevada, and basically giving it away to them, charging them a very small portion of the actual cost, Patrick McCully, Executive Director of Black Rock Solar explained.
“We’re saving money for our clients, who are all worthy entities, and we’re sticking more clean energy on to the grid, and hopefully reducing carbon emissions. We are funded mainly with rebates from NV Energy.”
Like Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar sprung directly from the Playa.
“In 2007, the theme was the Green Man, so there was an attempt to green the festival, and there was a pretty sizable array donated to power the Man, recalled McCully, “you don’t want to leave it sitting out in the desert or in a shipping container somewhere …” So some burners installed the panels on a building in nearby Gerlach, and with the rebate, bought more panels for another array.
Meanwhile, back in Black Rock City, the drive to green Burning Man continues.
“We have both solar models out here on the Playa,” Marnee Benson, Deputy Director of Black RockSolar reported. “At the Snow Cone Solar camp, they have two large systems providing power to a grid they create for their camp mates, and in the Alternative Energy Zone (AEZ), it’s more that each camp has their own system [no generators allowed].”
But as Benson, who hosted a Sustainability Summit during Burning Man 2011, also noted, most camps are still using generators.
“Someone wanting to put solar panels on their RV is faced with similar decisions to someone wanting to put solar panels on their house [i.e., the cost]. I hope what we are doing out here on the Playa is helping them get over that initial hurtle.”
Red Lightening in the Desert
There is music everywhere at Burning Man, it blares 24x7, and merges with the sound of the burner multitude and a fleet of engines, into one glorious cacophony. Nevertheless, there are spaces steeped in silence and serenity.
For example, Red Lightening camp has a Medicine Wheel, with four tipis (north, south, east and west) and a sacred fire at its center, “holding energy and intention for the camp and the Red Lightening family.”
Ria Megnin, who belongs to Red Lightening, shared some background.
“What makes Red Lightning so unique is its focus on collective evolution and healing. Our programming is super-diverse, but all of our workshops support personal growth that connects us with community, Mama Gaia and the cosmos. We started with visions drawn from Plains Indians traditions about how to honor our planet and ourselves, woven with new visions of balancing and empowering the feminine and masculine powers in all of us.”
Out on the Esplanade, Samantha Sweetwater, founder of Dancing Freedom, is leading a journey in a canopied pavilion.
“Yesterday was Wednesday, we don’t know what that means anymore. Today is Thursday, in case you were wondering. Mid-burn. That means it is going to get juicy … We are about to work with medicine. The medicine is your biochemistry in motion. The medicine is our community in motion … This one blessed, profane, fucked up, perfect heart, how does it feel right now? These blessed, profane, fucked up, perfect fingers, hands, elbows, knees, genitals, bellies, shoulders, jaw-bones, how do they feel right now? Anchoring into the Earth, the mystery of this life is going to be our material …”
In the beginning, there was the Man, and the powerful magic of burning him year after year. In that burning, great archetypal power is released, and great archetypal fear is banished. But the Man alone was not whole, not full, not balanced, there was something missing, and so the Temple came into being, and now each year, like the Man, it is built and then burned.
All around the Temple, there is an aura of sacredness; it is palpable in the atmosphere. It is burned the day after the Man. It turns the straight line of the arrow into a circle. It completes the ceremony. It is the Yin to the Yang, the Apollonian to the Dionysian, and it embodies the Divine Feminine.
Burning Man invested $80,000 in the 2011 Temple; $80,000 just to circumambulate it, use it as a crucible of memories, dreams, and losses, and then to burn it; a truly, profoundly communal experience of the sacred.
Leaning into Change
In 2007, James Hanusa was at his second Burning Man, and volunteering in Media Relations, telling the story of greening the Burn. (He described his first Burn as “the greatest party” he had ever experienced.) But it was at the Temple on that second year, that Hanusa had a transformative experience.
“I was alone, among 20,000 people who were silent in the middle of nowhere, offering respect to those that had passed on. Walking back from the Temple, in the dark, I heard a women crying behind me. She told me she had been honoring an addicted friend who had died. As his addiction worsened, he had continued to lose friends until she was the last person communicating with him. At that moment, something in my life opened up, and I understood, at the cellular level what I had often read about in books, the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Leaning into change became my mantra from that point forward.”
Today, Hanusa is responsible for New Initiatives at the Burning Man Project. These “New Initiatives” include an Economic Development & Civic Engagement program, partnership with the City of San Francisco to develop an Arts & Innovation Zone in the Market Street area, as well as a showcase for sustainability, technology, social enterprise and interactive urban art forms. Other partnerships in development include collaborations with neighbors in the Tenderloin, to work toward a cohesive community prepared for any disaster, a citizen-based, special forces group for disasters in other cities, and special plan for the city of San Francisco, involving a Burner-assisted disaster recovery.
“When the economic collapse began, I was talking to my brother on the telephone,” said Larry Harvey at the Playa press conference, “and my brother said, ‘Larry, isn’t capitalism sort of a Ponzi scheme?’ The market system of course is almost cognate with civilization in many ways, but this notion that it is all predicated on endlessly increasing amounts of consumption doesn’t really work anymore, which makes for a paralyzing … we have just reached a state of cognitive dissonance. Everybody knows that almost everything we do is unsustainable now. If the Chinese consume at the rate that we have the world’s got a problem; the 21st Century is going to be about resource wars. One thing that could mitigate that is using the resources that inhere in communities, which can lead to remarkable economies … if you look at a theme camp and where they acquire their resources, projects out here tend to create these ever-enlarging gifting networks, and doing things that way it is possible to recycle, reuse, repurpose … I do not think the economic system is going to change until we change the culture that we have concocted in the last several decades, and in that way, I think what we are doing here is an inspiring model that could be applied as yet un-thought of ways …”
Approaching the Temple on my first night at Burning Man, I vividly remembered the Central Park Be-In on the night humankind walked on the Moon; that “giant step for [human]kind” was televised on a huge TV screen to our massive tribal gathering. I also was taken back to Jimi Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner at dawn in Woodstock, as well as the wild magic of attempting to levitate the Pentagon two years earlier. It is not as if these memories had been buried in my psyche; but out on the Playa, I experienced them in a new way. There, it occurred to me that there was a continuity in all of these events, and that an evolutionary spiral was underway, and that although the thread sometimes seemed lost or broken, it never was or would be, and that one day (or night) hopefully sooner but probably later, the tapestry of a better, truer more humane society will be revealed. Meanwhile, primal culture (i.e., expressing, celebrating, sharing, loving, educating) and core civilization (i.e., food, water, shelter, clothing and security) would have to continue to be a moveable feast.
Richard Power is the author of seven books, including Between Shadow and Night: The Singularity in Anticipation of Itself and True North on the Pathless Path: Towards a 21st Century Yoga. He writes and speaks on security, risk, human rights and sustainability, and has delivered executive briefings and led training in over 40 countries. He blogs at http://words-of-power.blogspot.com and http://primalwordsofpower.blogspot.com
Burning Man 2011: Rites of Passage ~ The Temple of Transition Burn