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Why Newcomers Can’t Ruin Burning Man

August 28, 2017, 3:22 PM UTC

On the summer solstice of 1986, Jerry James, Larry Harvey, and a small gathering of their friends and family ignited the first bonfire of a wooden sculpture of the “Man” at San Francisco’s Baker Beach. Their communal actions launched what is now called Burning Man, a weeklong arts community that manifests and disappears with every Labor Day holiday in the Nevada Black Rock Desert.

At this utopist community known for its interactive art, people practice the 10 Principles: radical inclusion, where all are welcome; gifting without the expectation of reciprocation; decommodification, in which commercial advertisements are discouraged or subverted; radical self-reliance, in which people prepare for the rigors of desert camping; radical self-expression, through which people share themselves with others; communal effort; civic responsibility to a civil society; leaving no trace, which encourages people to conserve and pack out their trash; participation instead of spectatorship; and immediacy, emphasizing an immersive, rather than distanced, experience.

Some critics charge that with Burning Man’s growing popularity, its community has been ruined by people who attend but don’t adhere to the 10 Principles. While newcomers invariably introduce changes, ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Burning Man persists as a temporary community. As the Man’s embers disperse each year, they reignite within communities around the world.

Not content to live Burning Man for just nine days, Burners have launched these 10 Principles into the “default world”: their local communities. Organizing via the Burning Man Regionals located in North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, people have initiated community building, interactive art projects, and camp-outs with their own signature bonfires; some have even established their own nonprofit organizations to ease coordination of these efforts.

In addition, Burners Without Borders projects have applied volunteers’ skills honed at Burning Man to rebuild several communities devastated by natural disaster; volunteers also undertake smaller-scale humanitarian projects like preparing supplies for the homeless. People can get additional trainings and brainstorm with others at annual workshops hosted by the Burning Man Project, Burning Man’s relatively new nonprofit organization, and apply for funding. Other efforts are inspired by Burners’ experiences but aren’t officially affiliated with Burning Man. For instance, FIGMENT, an annual interactive arts event started on Governors Island, off the Manhattan and Brooklyn shorelines, and now runs in other cities in the U.S., as well as Hong Kong, Toronto, and Derby in the United Kingdom. Such gatherings infuse local environs with the Burning Man ethos, enveloping people who will never have the interest or means of attending the eponymous event.

Burning Man doesn’t just manifest in visible settings—it has also expanded an inner, reflective world. In particular, the 10 Principles and Burning Man’s organizing practices—which include decision-making by consensus where people have a say in matters, rather than just deferring to hierarchical authority—enable people to raise questions about the society they wish to support. When confronted, for example, by turnkey camps at the Burning Man event where affluent people pay others to prepare their food, shelter, and entertainment, people can debate the contours and limits of the principle of self-reliance versus inclusion and community. These conversations encourage people to explore the nature of inequality, an issue that often is taken for granted or viewed as inevitable and immutable in conventional society. And people learn to deal with differences, such as asking: What do you do when people have conflicting interpretations of acceptable norms and practices?

For some, Burning Man will always be just a brief, fun party for meeting new and old friends; for others, it offers long-term transformative potential, both at the personal and societal levels. If and when Burning Man ceases to exist, its imprints are likely to endure throughout society, as its inspired offshoots continue to disseminate—and even reconfigure—the 10 Principles and organizing practices to local communities.

Katherine K. Chen is an organizational ethnographer and sociologist, author of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man, and associate professor at The City College of New York (CUNY) and the Graduate Center, CUNY.