In the remote Nevada desert, a temporary city springs to life each year, a place where creativity knows no bounds, and self-expression reigns supreme. This extraordinary event is none other than the Burning Man Festival, a unique and transformative experience that has captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands worldwide. But this year – 2023 – has been a little different.
With thousands stranded, floods reported and even an awfully unfortunate death – this year’s festival will surely be considered one of the worst. But what actually happened? And why does Burning Man hold such a special place in the hearts of those who attend? In this article, we will delve into the essence of Burning Man, exploring its origins, as well as what went wrong this year. Let’s dive in.
What is Burning Man Festival?
Like all of life’s great festivals, Burning Man began as a small, intimate event with only a few people. The festival traces its roots to a humble gathering on a San Francisco beach in 1986, when Larry Harvey and Jerry James, two friends, burned an 8-foot-tall wooden effigy in an act of self-expression and rebellion. This symbolic burning marked the birth of what would become the annual Burning Man Festival. The event quickly grew in size and ambition, eventually relocating to the vast Black Rock Desert in Nevada, where it has taken place every year since 1990. ABC News writes:
“Burning Man draws tens of thousands of people every September to the dry desert in Black Rock City, Nevada for a weeklong celebration of music, arts and community. The name “Burning Man” comes from its main ceremony: the symbolic burning of a large wooden effigy called the “Man.”
Whilst it is referred to as a festival, most people would like to consider it as something else entirely – a global cultural movement. There are no music acts or gigs, it is simply an empty space that people come to fill with whatever they want. In other words, a blank canvas that is then sprayed with brilliant artistic colors and ideas. However, this year, this so-called canvas seems to have been absolutely drenched in one of the worst rainfalls since Burning Man’s creation. But we’ll get on to that later.
The 10 Principles of Burning Man
If you’re someone that’s used to a festival being a place where gigs and events are booked and you simply go along for the ride, Burning Man might sound a tad confusing. But their crucial ten principles that the festival and its visitors must abide by, might give you a little insight into the phenomenon that is Burning Man. These ten principles are a set of guidelines that serve as the foundation for the event. They help foster a sense of community and self-expression, creating a unique, safe and vibrant culture:
1 – Radical Inclusion
Everyone is welcome, and no prerequisites exist for participation.
2 – Gifting
Participants are encouraged to give freely without expecting anything in return.
3 – Decommodification
Commercialism is discouraged; participants are urged to create and share rather than buy and sell.
4 – Radical Self-Reliance
Attendees are expected to be self-sufficient and prepared for the harsh desert environment.
5 – Radical Self-Expression
Freedom of expression is celebrated in all its forms.
6 – Communal Effort
Collaboration and cooperation are key to creating the event’s infrastructure and art installations.
7 – Civic Responsibility
Participants are expected to respect and uphold the rules and laws of society.
8 – Leave No Trace
The “leave no trace” ethic ensures that the desert is left pristine after the event.
9 – Participation
Active participation, rather than passive spectatorship, is encouraged.
10 – Immediacy
Participants are urged to engage in the moment and connect on a personal level.
The Location: The Black Rock City
So where does this wonderful commune festival take place? Each year, the Black Rock Desert transforms into Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis where participants live for the duration of the event. This is usually around 9 days – with the famous ‘man’ being burned on the Saturday. This city is a testament to human creativity, with its unique architecture, massive art installations, and themed camps. It is a place where self-expression knows no limits, and attendees can be whoever they want to be, free from societal norms and judgments. A true hippie paradise.
Art and Expression
One of the most distinctive features of Burning Man is its focus on art and self-expression. The event is a canvas for artists from around the world to showcase their creativity. Giant sculptures, interactive installations, avant-garde performances, and vibrant costumes are just a few of the ways participants express themselves. The culmination of this artistic expression is the burning of the “Man” and the “Temple,” two towering structures that are set ablaze at the end of the event, symbolising the impermanence of life and art. If you’ve ever watched the Wicker Man, then you’ll understand this kind of thing. Although, it’s nowhere near as scary and sinister as that!
An Alternative Existence
For those lucky enough to go, attending Burning Man is a life-changing experience. It challenges societal norms, encourages self-discovery, and inspires personal growth. The freedom to be oneself without judgement and the opportunity to connect with a diverse range of people from all walks of life often leads to profound revelations and transformations. It’s like seeing another version of society – how it could have been if maybe we’d done a few more things right. Participants often refer to themselves as “burners” and celebrate the sense of belonging and camaraderie they find on the desert playa. The absence of cell phones and the focus on in-person interactions fosters genuine connections that often last well beyond the festival.
Burning Man 2023
So what went wrong this year? Well, whilst the energy of Burning Man can never be truly extinguished, a whole load of torrential rain did give it a go. The festival officially ended on Monday 4th September, but many are still stuck at the location after horrific rainfall and chaos. The BBC reports:
“Heavy rain created a mud bath at the remote festival site and flooded roads, trapping some 72,000 people there…The rainstorm that hit the Black Rock Desert near the end of last week is thought to have been the longest, heaviest rainfall since the festival began more than 30 years ago.”
Due to the fact that Burning Man is hosted in a desert, when such horrific rain fell it caused quite the opposite of the usual Mad Max atmosphere. Instead, it was more like something out of the Titanic. As the weather got worse on Friday, festival officials were recommending that ‘burners’ found shelter and safe camping spots. Once the rain began, it was essentially impossible to do much movement – evening leaving was made unlikely due to how slippery it was. Due to the extreme weather, even the burning of the man had to happen on Monday evening instead of Saturday.
Whilst many true ‘burners’ were still able to find joy and euphoria despite the weather, for lots it was quite unpleasant. There was even a fear, half way through the festival, that an outbreak of Ebola had started. However, this ended up being a conspiracy theory. However, one thing was not a conspiracy theory, and that is the death of Leon Reece, a 32 year old festival goer. The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office is currently investigating the incident, but it seems that he was unable to receive medical help due to the heavy rain. At present, it is unknown what the cause of death was.
As the Burning Man attendees begin their return home, they have been warmly welcomed by insanely long and arduous queues out of the festival. This wait, along with the week’s difficult experience, has caused a bit of chaos amongst the ‘burners’. The Independent writes:
“As usually happens in what burners refer to as the ‘default world’ people allow their emotions to override their reasonableness and they are lashing out at each other as they leave the playa and attempt to make it to their next destination,”
As the real world creeps back and the stresses of life seep out, people react accordingly. However, despite the perhaps failure of this year’s Burning Man, it cannot come close to destroying what is one of the most special events of the year.
Burning Man is more than a festival; it’s a cultural phenomenon that celebrates radical self-expression, creativity, and community. It is a place where the boundaries of art and self-discovery are pushed to their limits, leaving a lasting impact on the lives of those who participate. While this year’s event may have been challenging, both physically and emotionally, with tempest’s that would have made Shakespeare proud, the true aura of the place still remains. This festival will continue to draw thousands of people each year to the Nevada desert, where they will come together to create a temporary utopia and experience the magic of Burning Man. For anyone who attended this year, we wish you a safe return home and a nice hot bath.
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