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To Burn or not to Burn? An Outsider's Perspective on Burning Man

posted by Marjana Jaidi on December 13, 2012

I've never been to Burning Man. I always thought it wasn't for me, because I don't camp, I can't afford an RV (yet), I like structure, and I'm not comfortable with the idea of trading (as opposed to buying).

It turns out these are common misconceptions about Burning Man (except for the camping/RV part), which Sean Ahearn addressed head-on at the IMFCON panel, Anatomy of a Festival: Burning Man. Ahearn, the panel's moderator, is the Director of Development and Programming for Harmony Festival, which he describes as a "Burner Festival," with similar values to Burning Man. For the past seven years, he's attended Burning Man, camping in tents with his 72 year-old mother. If she can do it, I have no excuse.

Burning Man has deep-seated values that grew organically over the 25 years that the festival has existed. In 2004, Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, outlined these values in the Ten Principles of Burning Man, which inform the entire Burning Man organization and help with making key decisions.

"We think about our decisions in terms of the community and cultureā€¦ it's not about money," Rebecca Thorne, Burning Man's Ticket Manager, said during the panel. Sometimes, the team is faced with decisions that contradict the guiding principles. When Burning Man sold out for the first time in 2011, Thorne had to reevaluate the ticketing system to meet increased demand. They implemented a preregistration system, in which people would register in advance to buy tickets, and a select number or registrants, drawn by lottery, would be given access to buy tickets. The response was huge -- 120,000 people registered to buy tickets to the 50,000-capacity event.

Though Burning Man takes up approximately 40 square miles, increasing the event capacity is not an option. "You can't go from 50,000 to 120,000 people, it just doesn't work," Wally Bomgaars, the festival's Safety Council Manager, said. "Culture doesn't scale," Thorne added.

Having a fixed capacity goes against Burning Man's principle of radical inclusion, though Thorne interprets this principle as inclusion in the Burning Man community and culture as a whole, which goes beyond the actual event. The increased demand and subsequent lottery system also infringed on the principle of immediacy -- people didn't have control over whether or not they got a ticket, it was left purely up to chance. Thorne changed course after there was a community outcry -- while 40,000 tickets were released in the initial lottery, the remaining 10,000 tickets were distributed to people and groups that have a history with the community.

Ticket sales are Burning Man's only source of income. Unlike most festivals, who earn revenue from sponsorships, merchandise, and VIP experiences, Burning Man's principle of decommodification means that the festival has no secondary revenue streams.

One of my misconceptions about Burning Man was the idea of trading vs. buying. Because Burning Man is in the middle of the desert, you have to bring everything you need for the week. The only things that are sold on-site are ice, to avoid public health issues, and coffee, because every community needs a place to gather and coffee houses traditionally serve this purpose. Other than those two items, the proceeds from which are donated to charity, nothing is bought or sold, keeping with the principle of decommodification. Still, it's gifting -- not trading -- that is an inherent part of the culture.

"One of the secret sauce principles that makes our culture unique is the gifting concept," said Joseph Pred, Burning Man's Emergency Services Operations Chief. "Originally, this was misunderstood as bartering or trade, but it's really genuinely providing something for the community at large."

Gifting takes many forms at Burning Man. There are no headliners or main stages, and artists and DJs go to the festival for free and participate in the community. Participants are also known to build temporary restaurants, bars, and art installations for the duration of the festival, another manifestation of the gifting principle.

Burning Man is a participant-driven festival; unlike most festivals, there are no set times or predetermined activities. People are responsible for their own experiences, and in that sense, Burning Man doesn't have much structure. But one of the most surprising things I learned during the panel is how similar Burning Man's operations are to a city's.

"[Burning Man] is built on a municipal model as much as a festival model," Pred explained. "We have to think about it as both a city and as a festival." Like a city, Burning Man has a public works department, traffic enforcement, a post office, and a radio station. Burning Man may create a city, but a city is nothing without its citizens, who embrace Burning Man's civic responsibility and communal effort principles.

"We don't have fans, we have participants. They have as much ownership over our community as we do," Pred said of the attendees. "We act more like stewards, which creates that sense of ownership that is really unique."

Burning Man really is unique -- there's no other festival like it, though Burners have established a regional network that hosts events around the world (including Burning Flipside in Texas, and Ahearn's Harmony Festival in California) that embody the principles that Burning Man established.

I may have learned a lot about Burning Man from the panel, but nothing beats the actual experience. At least now I know that I'll feel welcome when I do make it out there. As the radical inclusion principle states, "Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community."

Photo: Sean Ahearn, Wally Bomgaars, Rebecca Throne, and Joseph Pred at the International Music Festival Conference

See Also:
Photo Gallery: IMFCON Showcases
What Makes a Great Festival? Dean Budnick's IMFCON Keynote
International Music Festival Conference Returns to Austin December 2-4