"I think Burning Man suffers from an image problem, in that many people's idea of it revolves solely around the most titillating stories," says Fred Fellowes, founder of the UK's Secret Garden Party festival and a proud Burning Man acolyte. "Most people have an array of fairly common myths in their heads—the social freedoms, the other freedoms it offers—and it really isn't what a lot of people think it is. I think it would surprise a lot of people; it's more of a sober affair, much more capable, than those myths might suggest."
Fellowes has been to Burning Man "eight of nine times" since first attending in 2006. He's run a theme camp on the event's open playa, with a bar and a small disco, and is happy to say that it's had a "huge influence" on the development of his own 22,500-person event. So he's well placed to comment on why Burning Man culture is booming worldwide, and how the week-long celebration of art, love, freedom, and self-expression is helping to change the way we experience festivals.
But first, a primer on what exactly Burning Man is: The first incarnation of the festival took place on the summer solstice in 1986, when friends Larry Harvey and Jerry James spontaneously decided to burn an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy of a man on Baker Beach, San Francisco. Some 35 people were there to watch. Over the next few years, the number of people attending the annual event grew steadily. But even then, surely no one in attendance could have envisaged that, 30 years later, the fire ceremony they were witnessing would mushroom into the 70,000 attendee-strong cultural behemoth it's become, attracting people from all over the world to its home for the past 25 years, Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
As well as the main Burning Man, there are now nearly 50 "Burns"—smaller events inspired by the spirit of Burning Man—held every year. Originally, these only took place in the US and Canada, but you'll now find them all over the planet, from AfrikaBurn in South Africa and Midburn in Israel, to Burning Seed in Australia, and the Borderland in Scandinavia, which this year takes place on a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Danish coast.
That now-global Burning Man spirit is underpinned by ten principles:
- Radical inclusion.
- Radical self-reliance.
- Radical self expression.
- Communal effort.
- Civic responsibility.
- Leaving no trace.
Out of that list, the "gifting" one is probably the most radical and—to someone who's never been to a Burn before—the hardest to get your head around.
Essentially: Money is worth nothing. Everyone gives one another everything, and it's all in the spirit of gifting, not trading. Drink, drugs, food, hugs: The idea is that giving and receiving all of those things will make you love everyone around you. And, from my experience, that idea usually works out. When I went to Nowhere, a Burn in the Spanish bushland between Barcelona and Zaragoza, I thought the gifting principle wasn't really going to to be adhered to: That it was a neat marketing ploy, but that there would be a black market of cigarettes and shit drugs. There wasn't.
However, considering most non-Burn events need to actually make some money, it makes sense that it's the principles of radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and participation that we're seeing most replicated elsewhere.
"Festivals in general have become more participatory, immersive, and interactive, with more of an emphasis on the overall experience as the selling point," says Paul Reed of the Association of Independent Festivals. "Our audience research supports this: In 2014, 58 percent of people surveyed said that the main reason for purchasing a festival ticket was the overall atmosphere and experience—less than 7 percent said headline acts. This is part of a wider cultural shift outside of just music festivals, with film events like Secret Cinema and theater production companies like Punchdrunk offering a sense of exploration and unpredictability."
Festivals offer the ultimate departure from reality, especially when they take place in a scorched desert, everyone's dressed like Mad Max characters, and people are literally handing you drugs for free.
Fellows, of Secret Garden Party, agrees that the immersive aspect of events inspired by Burning Man is a way of moving the festival game forward. "I think that one of the spaces that isn't so occupied by the bigger festivals with larger bands is the experiential," he says. "There is a desire to move from just being happy being a spectator to wanting more."
It's not enough to just be able to watch the action; you need to be the action—whether that means linking your nipple ring to someone else's and performing a tandem piece of interpretive dance, or just wearing a stupid outfit and getting your picture taken by a photographer there for that Sunday's supplement spreads.
Burning Man has been setting annual artistic themes since the 1990s—this year's is "Da Vinci's Workshop"—and, closer to home, Secret Garden Party and Bestival have followed tradition, applying a central theme each year that guides the respective festival's artistic direction and promotion. Last year, Rob Da Bank's Isle of Wight weekender asked attendees to come in outfits inspired by the Summer of Love; this year, it's the "Future".
I wonder if this focus on fancy dress has anything to do with the Instagram generation coming of age—the perfect opportunity for you and all your friends to dress up like Lichtenstein paintings and rack up those valuable likes. "Yeah, I reckon so," says Fellowes, whose SGP is following a futuristic "Gardeners Guide to the Galaxy" theme this year.
Jonathan Walsh from Shambhala—another festival that shares many Burning Man qualities—doesn't buy my theory. "[The fancy dress is] all part of the participation, the alternate," he says, "leaving the grind behind and setting you free."
Walsh believes that more and more festivals are adopting the principles established by Burning Man because "a fulfilled, more purposeful existence is becoming more desirable in a world where people are realizing working harder and harder for greater accumulation isn't the answer."
One person who can certainly identify with this is Shofiqul Addin, a.k.a. Shaft, a.k.a. Shivacorn. You might recognize Shaft from the recent VICE documentary Unicorns, which documented the hedonistic micro-subculture he founded, where people who self-identify as unicorns cover themselves in glitter and sometimes have sex with each other.
Buoyed by his first trip to Burning Man in 2010, where he says he took acid and got "lost in the desert for three days," he came back, sold all his possessions—bar his bike, a bag of clothes, and a Mac (he works in advertising)—and started squatting. Over the next five years, he went to 25 Burns all over the world, and freely admits it totally changed his life.
"At Burning Man, I'm allowed to be myself, says Shaft. "It nurtures weirdos."
That sentiment nails the appeal of the culture of Burning Man, and explains why so many festivals—not just SGP or Shambhala, but also the likes of Boomtown, Rainbow Serpent in Australia, and Meadows in the Mountains in Bulgaria—have adopted those ideals of radical inclusion, radical self-expression, and participation.
The internet opens up the world to anyone in possession of it. Whatever you're into—doomcore, acting like a unicorn, rice cakes, whatever—the web means you can almost instantly find someone else who's into the same thing as you, and suddenly it's not so strange any longer. Our minds, generally, are more open, and people need arenas in which to explore and express this openness. And doing that in a desert or an open field, surrounded by likeminded people, beats doing it in your suburban bedroom.
The internet has also helped Burning Man grow, and one of the main challenges it now faces is retaining its original ideals while growing bigger. Spend any time on the message boards of the "Burner" community, and you'll see a vast mixture of opinions regarding whether or not the festival should move forward into a brave new world.
I ask a guy called Steve Outtrim, who runs the popular Burners site burners.me, what he thought about Burning Man's increasing popularity, and whether or not he thought its increased visibility in the media could threaten everything it has come to be.
"Burning Man has gone mainstream, just like the Grateful Dead did," he says. "They should go on tour, just like the Grateful Dead did. It's a hit—run with it. Why not?"
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