I got home from Burning Man on Wednesday, and since then I’ve been struggling with trying to describe the experience to people who have never been.  It’s a bit like trying to describe what the color orange sounds like — we just don’t have the vocabulary.

I stayed up last night until the wee hours before sunrise, trying to write an article about it for the Washington Spark, an indymedia newspaper based in DC.  The deadline was this morning, and I finally got to a place of having a reasonable, though nowhere near comprehensive description of a small piece of the experience.  I’ll post it here, and write more freeflow about it later as I’m inspired.

The Burning Man Festival: A City of Possibility

The inspirational directive to “dance as if nobody’s watching” is elegant, though it might be more appropriate to say, “dance as if nobody cares”.  In the desert of Nevada for one week each year, it’s true.  As long as you’re dancing (or expressing yourself however you feel inspired), no one cares what it looks like.

Next year marks the 20th summer of the Burning Man festival, a celebration of raw creative expression and temporary autonomous community during the week before Labor Day.  For one week, a city of tents, RVs, and geodeisic domes is created by over 40,000 people on an ancient lakebed (the “playa”).  No money is exchanged; people pack in their own supplies, and share. The result is a mix between a frat party, a commune, a playground, and an art museum.

Collective camps make up the bulk of the Burning Man experience.  Groups of participants organize beforehand to offer elaborate setups of food, space, information, and experiences to share with the rest of the city.  Some of my favorite offerings from camps included the roller disco, homebrewed root beer, daily yoga sessions, a giant teetertotter, S&M workshops and bondage lessons, the Crappiest Lemonade Stand Ever (make your own out of powdered gatorade and water while the camp hosts sit back and watch), and aerial silk dancing lessons and performances.  We passed by one camp on our bikes where we were accosted with invitations to come in and join a party of exotic drinks and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Beyond Black Rock City (the unifying name for the temporary civic area) lies the open playa, which over the course of the week becomes spotted with interactive, experiential works of art.  From giant statues to quirky installations,  over 150 artistic expressions are scattered across the desert carpet.  Anyone is welcome to display a piece of art, and some artists receive grants from the festival in order to finance their creations.

The real power of the experience for me was in the openness and essential limitlessness of the event. There’s no established program; things only happen when someone decides to make them happen.  There’s no established social rules about acceptable behavior, beyond a basic value of civic responsibility.

Cultural rules give us a sense of what to expect, providing social safety which is at the same time comforting and limiting.  Traffic rules provide smooth flow with other travellers.  But when people are for the most part on foot or on bicycles, interactions can be negotiated in the moment.  For the power of direct engagement with other people, I’m willing to accept a few near-misses and ungraceful swerves, at least for a week.  For one week of freedom from expectation, it’s worth it to put the extra energy into intentional navigation of every interaction.  This is the power of this temporary autonomous zone, where we can choose to make this daring and ineffecient tradeoff for a limited amount of time.

Burning Man isn’t a model for a sustainable alternative society.  Instead, it offers an experience of new possibilities, a look at what lies beyond our normal limits of experience and expression.  The lessons of Burning Man are about empowering the individual, with the intention of creating a community based on both self-reliance and trust of others.  Individuals expressing themselves fully, in needs, desires, thoughts, and fears, create a strong base for a powerful collective.  I experienced this in the final days of the festival, once I trusted myself more in seeking out what I really wanted.  I got silly with strangers.  I explored new art forms.  I walked in solitude across the vast playa on a self-directed mission to pick up scattered trash.  I asked questions that seemed irrelevant, gave away random gifts from my bag, rode my bicycle naked, and offered to assist a struggling juggler.

Coming back into larger society, I want to carry these lessons with me.  If I see someone doing something interesting, I can ask them to teach me.  If I see something that needs to be done, I can do it.  If I’m lonely, I can find someone to play with me.  If I’m curious, I can step forward and experience more.