Windswept, barren, and glowing with heat, the Black Rock desert is almost as unwelcoming to man as the surface of Mars – it shouts ‘death to the unprepared’. Yet many years ago, in a time of hippie glory, a few came in the footsteps of Native Americans who sought vastness and emptiness to confront purgatory on earth, or find enlightenment.
That is what Burning Man is about: finding yourself amongst others in the middle of nowhere. Left to your own devices, hanging onto your humanity, and ‘krumping’ to music from earblasting art-cars, you may very well come across truths and insights your longtime friends or shrink never helped you dig out. There is beauty and poetry in this seemingly regressive and extreme exercise. It’s almost a form of collective catharsis. In that sense it is literally a spiritual utopia.
So why does the technological elite escape their duties prior to the rush of September to go to the desert in flocks, like an ordinary clan? They use avatar names, hide from the worst of the dust storms in air-conditioned trailers and munch ice cooled sushi. They do it because nowhere else could 50,000 souls have a peaceful party despite having so many conflicting ideals and backgrounds, without either ridiculous security or scrupulous organization. It’s the largest ephemeral city to date. Its inhabitants are all elated by various neurotropics, including utter sobriety, in the least hospitable place on our blue planet.
A little slice of heaven it can be to witness certain moments at night, when all the LED creations blink like a trippy 80’s video game. Imagine Mad Max coming to distribute flowers and margaritas instead of punching your brain out of your skull. It can bend the minds of the greatest skeptics that we are capable of so much at Burning Man, both individually and as a spontaneous community.
Is anyone else out there having such an insane amount of fun? If you could pack this in a bottle you could probably make Congress vote progressive bills or arrest violent mobs and reprogram suicide bombers.
Many accuse the festival of having become commercial, and perhaps having faded from its primordial essence. I am not an old timer and cannot judge. What I see is that it is just like a city. There are neighborhoods, camps and communities of all kinds, good and bad depending on who you are. If you find your tribe, you are set to experience something special and massively valuable: complete freedom of expression.
It seems to me that Burning Man is undergoing a transition. It started as an epi-phenomenon reserved for outliers. Then it took the form of a kind of super-alternative Coachella. Now it may be becoming a bit of a ritualized reboot for the many. It can be simple or sophisticated. It can cultivate important relations between high level business leaders, especially in the new tech areas, outside of predicated conventions and manners.
In other words it is a source of renewal and a well of ideas that can overflow into society. There have been rumors that a permanent location around the playa is being planned by a group of leading futurists and philanthropists. That might bolster the prospect that this culturally vibrant anomaly could help us move to a world where creativity and imagination is the law and authority is fairer. However idealistic, this is the ethos of Burning Man in which you immerse yourself for a few days.
Yes, Burning Man is a serious thing. It is obviously a ludicrous stupor-inducing steam-punk fashion gala appealing to the lesser instincts, and almost half the program seems to be trying to normalize some form of sexual deviance. But it is also a full-blown futures laboratory. Rough climate shelters were here before the army had them. Drones and LEDs debuted here too, and now mist makers, solar-powered reverse-osmosis water filtration, and of course robotics and AI are in evidence.
Don’t underestimate what we can learn from ourselves in this outlandish context. Pathetically enthusiastic crowds watch pop-up monuments light up the sky. It might just hide the truth of what is happening, as tech moguls, urbanists, policy makers, scientists, artists and environmentalists all conspire to guess their way forward and salvage our flaming civilization. Burning together, we may rise more humane.
Architect and futurist Thomas Ermacora is Director of Clear-Village.Org & MachinesRoom.Org. He co-authored Recoded City: Co-Creating Urban Futures, to be published in December.