Burning Man Elaborated: The 10 Principles

“It will blow your mind,” they said, and I nodded. Supposedly, I’d had my mind blown more often than I could count, with pretty much every event and artist I’ve seen. And to be perfectly honest, each time leaned towards a disappointment.
Thankfully, I’ve gotten a lion’s share of epic moments in my life, but when it comes to people’s recommendations, I can’t help but notice that most things are hyped to a legendary status, for all the reasons I couldn’t care less about.
So imagine my surprise when, after asking someone unknown to dance for the first time in my life, I sank to my left knee and she shifted her weight, I noticed that my mind just got blown. Again.

So now I tell people the same: Burning Man will blow your mind. It was a hopeful thing to see someone shy and reserved like me, open up so easily and take in everything with such huge quantities. I left Black Rock City satisfied that I had enjoyed it to the fullest of my capacity.
I thought long and hard on how to share that feeling. I mean, I have a relatively open mind and enough imagination, but even with all the info out there -and I read most of it- I still had no idea what I was getting into. No explanation sufficed to illustrate the experience.

The only attempts that came close, were the articles that delved deeper into the 10 principles of Burning Man. I have to admit I missed the point of those though, because I’m not a big fan of rules and regulations, even in a place where there’s only 10 of them. Reading those posts, I just felt like I was going to be wasting much energy focusing on my obligations rather than my freedoms. Little did I know, the opposite was true.

So let’s go over those principles, and how I experienced them. I hope that, if you can bear with me to the end, you might have a better understanding of why my stay in the Black Rock desert challenged my ideas on society as a whole.

1. Radical Inclusion

I’m not going to lie: Radical inclusion is pretty damn easy when 99% of attendants are white 30-something rich people. While there were plenty of folks around that I wouldn’t necessarily let into my house, no one came over as remotely threatening or particularly obnoxious, those singing hippies in the will call queue being the only exception. And if there was someone whose face you didn’t like much, there was all the space in the mars-like landscape to walk around them.

This principle means that as long as you are not criminal or amoral, you are accepted in the community. It challenges you to do the same towards other people and several times, I was pleasantly surprised with people I would otherwise avoid. Certain individuals who looked like they were trying a bit hard suddenly seemed to contribute in ways I had not expected. This was a humbling thing, and made me wonder how many enriching experiences I had lost out on in everyday life, simply because of my own intolerance towards others.

2. Gifting

You are supposed to come bearing gifts. I thought about bringing Belgian chocolate but I guessed the desert heat wouldn’t treat them so well, and most other things involved complications with border customs or transportation. In the end, I printed out a whole batch of little notes, that introduced me as being an amateur photographer, happy to share my photos with others. They are very personal to me and I put a lot of work in them, so I thought it a fitting gift.

In retrospect, I am very satisfied that I did. Being able to finish an encounter with someone exchanging little gifts, gives that meeting a magic touch. Passing on my photos became something I did not because it was expected of me, but because I wanted to. It somehow allows for you to give a piece of yourself, as a little souvenir of a random meeting, as if it were something special. I liked that my gift was somewhat like a portal into the results of hours upon hours of work and risk of destroyed equipment.

Photography is also an easy way to connect with people, one that I rather need. It’s an ice breaker and makes people curious about what you’re doing. For me, it gives me an excuse to ask about what I’m seeing and draw out stories. People love talking about themselves and then and there, I loved to listen. My camera was the perfect conversation starter.

What I got:
A tiger’s eye gem, a bracelet, a penguin sticker, a tiny rock from the beach where Burning Man was held the first time (“take it, and use it to change your life for the better!”), a little container of home-made lip balm, a silk scarf (traditional among capoeiristas), a bar crew badge (“Death Before Decaf!”), a Lamp Lighters’ token, a DJ’s card, …I think that’s it.

Note that ‘gifting’ does not mean ‘trading’. While I got a lot of these trinkets in exchange for my own card, it is not the point. There is no trade system in place, anywhere.

3. Decommodification

I had to look this one up, I admit.
Basically, this principle protects the event from official sponsorships and commercial exploitation, since those would endanger the spirit of gifting and participation. Even when “gifting,” companies seek to gain something out of that transaction, which goes against the culture of the festival.

The absence of Smirnoff advertisement or free Red Bull distributed by top-heavy bimbos was something I had noticed throughout the festival, but I didn’t know this was actually part of the principles. I hadn’t given it much thought but looking at it this way, I can see how this is a necessity in the more subtle workings of the festival. Commercial activity would endanger the essence of the other principles, and spread the idea that exceptions to the rules become the norm, tolerated only when there is profit to be made- a phenomena all too often seen in our own society.

It should be mentioned that money has no value at Black Rock. It can be used only to buy bags of ice and cold drinks at Center Camp, but everything else is free. Drinks, food, gifts- they are all free. That doesn’t mean you can come and depend on other people, however.

4. Radical Self-Reliance

“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her own inner resources.”
In other words: BYOB.

I think this is mostly a practical rule: With over 80,000 people making up a city, people can’t just show up and expect to be provided for. The nearest store worthy of the name is hundreds of kilometers away, and even they won’t have nearly enough water to even cover a fraction of the city, let alone for free. Therefore, everyone must bring their own food and drink.

It goes further than that. If you can’t carry your own weight, surely others will. But if this becomes a regular thing, with everyone counting on others, the whole structure collapses and people die.
Yes, die. It is so easy to die out there, you wouldn’t believe. You can literally go sit somewhere and by the next day, you’ll be dead. It happens now and then: People fall asleep in the dust after partying all night, and don’t get spotted in the infinite desert before it’s too late. It’s a harsh and dangerous environment and going unprepared is not only playing with your own life, but with that of others.

Survival and luxury takes roughly 6 liters of water per day, per person. I think we counted on 9 days, so 9x6x3 is roughly 150 liters. This provides a serious challenge, especially combined with food, shelter and whatnot. Whatever you bring to the desert, you’ll always feel like you forgot something, because you did. Simple things one might overlook are suddenly a big problem. Luckily, you are never alone.

5. Communal Effort

Another lookie-uppie. In its core is the encouragement towards creative collaboration and the support of anything in favor of this. It urges people to work together to build camps, art or installations the individual couldn’t. This way, the festival can grow to become much more than a sum of its parts, and connecting with others becomes a much more organic thing.
Suddenly, large structures pop up, dotting the landscape. Camps are organized around a theme, anything from tea to buttsex.

The downside is that, should you attend without a group, it is much easier to feel alienated and left behind in the gigantic party of people who all know each other. Granted, the community is much more open to making new friends than any other, but it makes that first connection just a little harder.

6. Civic Responsibility

Fancy words for the simple rule we should all live by:
Don’t be a dick.

I suppose the message is more directed towards organizers of smaller events, to make the attendees aware of their responsibility towards the environment and everyone in it. This year, party area “The District” took some heat because of this, since their camp had a huge mess on the floor at the end of every night. Cigarette butts and small material-out-of-place (nicknamed MOOP) blows away or is buried under dust, polluting the whole desert.

Many other camps took this responsibility a little more serious, with signs all around ranging from “TAKE YOUR MOOP WITH YOU” to “FUCKING BY PERMIT ONLY”. It was sometimes a little hard to make out just how serious you should take the threat, “VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED”.
Most often seen on signs and billboards was the next rule:

8. Leave No Trace

Sounds simple, right? Don’t leave your shit behind. Leave no evidence of you being there. Truth is, it’s not.

You’re halfway there when you start carrying your cigarette butts with you, and opt not to wear fluffy boas to a party because of the feathers they drop. But tell me, where would you put your dishwater? If after 8 days, you finally decide on an attempt to wash your hair, how will you avoid the suds to touch the desert floor?
After the festival wraps up and the caravan departs to its day job, only desert must remain. The voluntary clean-up crew stays behind for days, on their knees, combing through the sand in search of The District’s shit. Some other camps this year even left behind couches and furniture, for the organization to deal with.

I don’t think I left much behind but keeping this up for 10 days is exhausting. I don’t have the habit of picking up small trash when I find it, let alone put it in my pocket with the map that I managed to keep spotless all this time. Also, I’m pretty sure the cleaners ran into that yellow stain we left behind when trying to cook an egg on the uneven hood of our car. Whoopsy. Or because 1 of us 3 only figured out that gray water is also MOOP, after the 3rd day.

It might sound a little overzealous but soon, I couldn’t help but admit that this principle wasn’t nearly as simple as it initially sounded. The dunes left from dust blowing against your tent, must be raked flat. The sand colored from your dirty water, must be taken with you. Before you take off, all members of your camp should spend a decent amount of their time on their knees, looking for even the tiniest bit of trash, regardless if you yourself, a camp member, or a drunk sparkle pony from 2 camps over dropped it.

This is the only rule that I knowingly broke.

9. Participation

“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.”

What is Burning Man?

Hopefully compensating a little for the traces that I left, is my nailing of this principle. When I came to Burning Man, I was planning on finding a fun job to do for an hour or two, and consider that my participation. By the end of the festival, I had done the following:

I joined the Lamp Lighters twice, hanging up oil lamps all along the streets, carrying the 3 gifts of the Lamp Lighters on my shoulders: Navigation, Illumination and Celebration.
I took the stage at an open mic, explaining how to bring up the issue of sexism with less educated folk like myself.
I joined the film crew at the TEDx: Black Rock City event and filmed 2 talks.
I did a bar shift at Center Camp, cleaning up people’s shit after them and flirting casually (or so my friend told me, I wasn’t catching on) behind the sink.
I was a photographer for the Black Rock Beacon, a local newspaper located by the Inner Circle.
I helped the roadies crossload some gear between trucks after they took down the souk in preparation for the burn.
I fixed a couple bikes of people stranded in the desert.

I… think that’s all? Basically, some contribution or other, every day. Oddly, I never felt pressured into any of it- if anything, I was excited to be able to help and relieved that they let me join.
Black Rock press photographer? Are you kidding me? My pictures are in the newspaper, going down as part of the history of Burning Man.
The Lamp Lighters put a white robe on me with flames painted all over, and let me join the caravan, slowly, one foot in front of the other, strolling off into the desert with the setting sun in the corner of my eye.
You can’t find this kind of moments anywhere else in the world. Or the gratification for that matter, with burners passing us by yelling their thanks.

10. Immediacy.

This is the most vague and at the same time, the most important of all principles. It serves as a push towards recognizing your environment and taking it in, working with it. You can fail all other principles and still enjoy and contribute to Burning Man, but if you fail to grasp the moment as it arises, you might as well be following it on Twitter.
It is part of the reason why I picked up photography again way back when, and why I chose to bring it to Black Rock City: it trains me to seek out opportunities, graphical or otherwise, and enjoy them to the fullest. Cynical inhibitors so abundant in everyday life, have little to no function at the festival and you’re best off leaving them at home.

I am relieved and thankful to confidently say that no moment spent there was without a profound meaning. Whether we were waiting in line for pancakes, looking into a stranger’s eyes, having dinner with friends, or wandering the dust naked and alone, every second had so much content, it was hard to wrap my mind around it. The chemistry between myself and the event was pretty much absolute and there’s not much else I could wish for.

11. Consistency

Yeah I added my own principle, deal with it.

If there was a way for me to express my gratitude to each and every of the 80,000+ attendees, I would. If I could offer them all a home-away-from-home here in Belgium, I wouldn’t hesitate. But why stop there?

Burning Man is a fantastic experience, but it is circumstancial. Who ever you might find yourself to become there, is someone you carried inside of yourself all along. A shift in reality might be able to draw it out, but whatever energy you found there, is something that came from within.
It might not be 100% possible to carry out the 10 principles in your daily life, but that doesn’t need to stop you from trying. Blaming your environment for your own principles doesn’t work- If you find yourself being a better person in the Black Rock desert, it should show you that there is the possibility to improve at home.

This realization is perhaps the greatest gift that I got. While the festival might be a caricature of today’s society, it might provide a target to aim for. If I can talk to strangers in the desert, why wouldn’t I be able to do so in the city?
While I might not be able to thank every burner for their contribution or offer them my gift, I can certainly do so with every stranger in this festival called life.

The burn of the man, to me, doesn’t revolve around some death and rebirth principle- I got plenty of those already. Instead, it showed me that nothing changed after the central pillar of the festival was violently destroyed. In fact, my most memorable encounters happened in the 24 hours after the burn, as the general atmosphere became more relaxed and thinly populated.

There doesn’t need to be a festival to celebrate life. The 10 principles might all look good on paper but if you didn’t have any of your own to begin with, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Stupid things like gifting of collaborating have the power to change a community for the better, with Burning Man being a remarkable example.

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