Imagine an empty canvas, white and dusty, that stretches for miles and miles across an arid desert. There is nothing on it – no object, no water, no plant, tree, bush, animal. Nothing. Just a vast expanse. Then imagine tens of thousands of people converging with the intention to turn this canvas into a living work of art. They build a city. They live, love, and laugh together for a week or so. Then they tear the city down and leave. When the last of them has gone, there is nothing left. No trace. Not a scrap. The canvas is swept clean, returned to its natural state, pristine and empty.
Imagine you are one of those people. There are no rules about how you must behave or express yourself. For an entire week, you can be and do whatever you want. There are no rules, but there are ten principles informing the life of the community: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. You are given the freedom to express yourself without hindrance, repression, or fear. From that freedom emerges the brilliant spark of your creative individuality; the greatest contribution you could make to the communal fire.
The city functions as a gift-economy. Nothing is bought or sold (save ice and coffee), nothing bartered. Anything you might need, you bring. It’s the desert. Hot as hell in the day, freezing at night. Massive sandstorms arise without warning. No water. No stores. Just you, your open mind and heart, your furry pants, whatever else you brought, ten principles, and tens of thousands of other people.
A large man, made of wood, presides over the city. On the eve of the final day together, the entire community gathers, and they light the man on fire. There are no rules as to what this means.
What emerges on this tabula rase, in the harsh desert, under these conditions? What strange and wonderful forms, living or otherwise? What kind of art is painted by a community of 48,000 people, each expressing their individuality to the fullest, on this blank desert canvas?
I’m going to find out.
It’s called Burning Man, and it happens every year at the end of August in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada. I’m going this year for the first time, with a couple good friends who are seasoned burners. We start skipping down the yellow brick road in a few short days…
The Ten Principles of Burning Man
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience