Growing up a Burner

Sorry for the no posts, I have been on a travelling adventure the last three weeks. My travels took me to far off strange and mysterious places some might say 🙂

My first stop was Burning Man, a counterculture arts festival that takes place at Black Rock City (BRC) in the middle of the desert of Northern Nevada. This year was my sixth year attending the event. My first burn was in 2006. I had no intention of going this year, until I was gifted a ticket by my friend Sandra Safire very last-minute; actually, she gifted it to me the day before the event started. I was stoked at the idea of going to Burning Man, but was freaked out at the thought of prepping before leaving in 12 hours. First call was made to my boss for obvious reasons. She gave me the go ahead, much to my relief. I already had a two week vacation booked right after Burning Man so I was a little concerned about tacking on another week to my original vacation. Safire and I had a fire performance for a wedding that Saturday night, and then the next day we packed for the burn and hit the road. We drove straight through down to BRC stopping only for bathroom breaks. It was pretty surreal going down to Blackrock without any planning or any idea that I would be going. It was definitely a different experience from previous burns where i have taken the whole year to plan and prep.

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Safire driving to Burning Man

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The Gift

When I pulled out my camping stuff, I was pleased to discover that I had everything I needed for the burn (it had been four years since the last time I had pulled it out)-, except for a sleeping bag and air mattress. I had multiple items of many things including enough rebar steaks for 3 tents (windstorms are strong on the playa so 1 ft steaks are used to secure tents), tennis balls (to cover rebar steaks with),  three pairs of goggles, two headlamps, loads of batteries all different sizes and lots of bike lights (some had never even been opened).  I had the realization that I am a burner at my core, considering I had all this on hand.

I was relieved that there were no big purchases needed to be made, and I could do Burning Man with just a few things that I had on hand, as well as borrow an item or two for things I didn’t have. My only expenses for this burn were food, water, and gas to the event. Oh, and camp fees for camping with the Space Gnomes (who were AWESOME by the way. If you’re ever on the playa, make sure to check out their camp on Tuesday night for a great party with many of the Canadian burners). Many burners camp with theme camps, and these camps usually have fees associated with them to pay for the shared structures, and supplies for the camp. It is essentially pooling resources out on the playa to make awesome shit happen such as throwing wicked parties on the playa, create art, and so forth. I considered these camp fees a service as I did not actually purchase anything and they go to support the camps efforts as a whole. It was definitely my cheapest burn over the six years I have been going, especially when I contrast it to last year’s burn when I flew to San Diego and rented a huge 36’ RV for the event with three friends.

The drive to Burning Man was one of the smoothest I have ever experienced. Safire and I had a great, uneventful drive, and crossing the border into the U.S. we had no issues (always one of my bigger worries when heading down to Burning Man). We drove straight through for 24 hours and upon arrival waited about five more hours to get into the event itself.

After going so many years to Burning Man, I have a routine now when I am there. I spent most of my burn looking at art, hanging out with good friends (from all over–some I only get to connect with at BRC), hooping my booty off (I have been a hula-hoop dancer since 2006), and connecting with many other fellow burners. One thing I loved seeing were instructions on how to build an Earthbench at one of the theme camps. I think it would be neat to build one in Calgary, so I flagged it in my mind to check out their site when I got home. I would love to get the community involved in this project if there is interest, so let me know in the comments below what you think.

Usually when I go to Burning Man, I come to a new understanding with myself with where I am at in my life. This year was no exception. I had the realization that I have spent the majority of my adult life identifying as a burner now. I have grown up as a burner. I have been going to Burning Man for the past six years since 2006. I took a break in 2009 & 2010 from the main event, but am engaged with the community all year round. We have a strong local community in Alberta, and it keeps growing every year. This year being on the playa I came to terms with myself that this is the life that I wanted to live all the time. We go to Burning Man to embody these 10 principles, but these principles can be exported to our daily lives and, in fact, we are encouraged to bring them home with us.

Actually, I think the ultimate inspiration for me doing buy nothing year is to hold up one of the core principles of Burning Man–decommodification of society. I want to bring my burner life, and real life, closer together. I want them to flow seamlessly into each other until I cannot tell where one ends and the other begins.Embarking on buy nothing year has changed the context in which I see Burning Man and the role it has played in my life. As more people experience the burn, it feels like a larger social movement. We are truly becoming a global tribe. Burners are awesome. It feels like such a gift to consider myself a part of this movement, tribe, and experience. We become participants in this wonderful tribe and city we create for a week. This society functions as a participatory economy with participatory experiences mimicking the idea of plentitude that Juliet Shor has theorized.

One of my friends said on the playa, how lucky we are to be here, and what would it be like to even try and describe it to someone from a third world country–where even basic needs are a struggle to meet, and survival is not guaranteed. I said, despite knowing what to expect, I am still blown away every year. It is hard to imagine this outpour of generosity that comes from so many local burner communities to put on an event of this magnitude. People slave year round to create and share this experience.

One experience that really impacted me this year, came from listening to other burners share how profoundly they crave the type of connection and interaction we have at BRC in their day to day lives. I increasingly get the message from artists and participants at the event that there is a need to live as burners and embody the ten principles year round. The core principles of Burning Man do not need to exist at only the event itself; they can embody our lives and become a philosophy that directs the  way we live.

I want to learn to live a decommodified life.

I want to learn to live a sustainable life. I want to participate in an economy and a society where we can all be active members. I think more and more that this is possible. I think as I grow up, and as the burners around me and our culture as a whole grows up, we are finding more legitimacy in the way that we can connect and make our counterculture ideas a day-to-day reality.

Burning man is important to me because it teaches me how to be a participant. It teaches me how to get involved and how to be a maker, a creator, and a purveyor of knowledge. This is exactly what the new economy needs. It needs us to become doers. Not simply purchasers. The individual cannot survive. The collective must thrive. We have to temper individual wants and desires with individual passions and contributions that generate social wealth, preserve natural wealth, and put people back into our economies. We should not be spending the majority of life slaving away into systems that force us to view each other as competitors.

One message that came clear to me, is that much like the internet, Burning Man is growing up. And I am growing up as a burner. My participation becomes more intense as the years go on. I see how we are part of a global movement, that is linking to hard work that so many others are doing both burners and non burners. Just to clarify, I don’t think you have to be a burner to embody the elements of it. I refer to it as my point of view context because it is the lens on which my adult life has been filtered. So I use it as my main source of inspiration. It is my medicine. Every year I pull from it what I need to, to keep doing the work that I do in my daily life.

frame   val mohney arts    headdress
Portrait 2008                           Photo Credit: Val Mahoney                    Portrait  2012

The Gifting Economy

Gift giving is fundamental at Burning Man where everything can be considered a gift—a story, costume, art piece, meal, toy, performance kiss, spanking, earplugs and so forth. No limits are put upon this gifting exchange because it is about being active in our economy instead of passively exchanging money for something you buy for yourself where no interaction need take place, and goods are stripped of meaning being merely objects of consumption. To receive a gift creates appreciation and mutual reciprocation; it is an exchange of energy—active.

This unique gifting economy is a resistance to what  Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, considers the dominant culture’s ability to commodify experience where the marketplace emphasizes the desires of the individual. He says that experiences are not co-created and shared, but instead are purchased and hoarded. Instead of participating in the creation of meaning, we consume the product of what someone else has decided is important.  The act of gifting or receiving a gift takes on a whole new contextual meaning, and an appreciation develops that goes beyond the simple exchange of legal tender for goods. Gifting happens spontaneously and often for no reason at Burning Man. I have often been touched by the intimate and personalized gifts I received without ever meeting the giver—whether it’s a pile of necklaces I find on my bike after I relieved myself in a porta potty, or tables displaying a collection of treasures for the taking which are then often gifted out later. The transaction of goods that occur becomes just a sign of the budding friendships that evolve, or the sense of goodwill that surrounds the community.

A gifting economy is so absurd and counter to our capitalist paradigm that often people who have never been to Burning Man have a hard time understanding the concept. The conversation that takes place usually goes like this:

Me: “Burning Man is based on a gifting economy where one cannot buy or sell anything there. Instead people will gift to each other.”

Person: “So people trade with each other. It’s like a barter system?”

Me: “No. It’s not necessary to give something in exchange—often gifts are given with no exchange needed. It’s given for giving sake alone.”

Person: “Why?”

Why indeed. The concept is so foreign to the dominant metanarrative that the very act of giving to complete strangers without thinking about giving something back is conditioned right out of us.  Yes of course we can be generous to friends or on occasion we are taken aback by a rare moment where we might throw some change into a homeless person’s hat, but that is usually the limit of our giving nature. However, the intent at Burning Man is to step outside of treating all exchanges as merely transactions and look at a deeper dream that is being facilitated here—one that resists capitalism and etches out an existence for the appreciation of goods to be an extension of community and a physical manifestation of sharing.

The Meaning of Art

An artist friend of mine asked me, “What about artists?. If people don’t buy art how do they survive?”. I replied that they can trade, work collaboratively in communities and decide why are they making art? Does everything have to become a product to survive? Can we produce for other reasons? Can we upcycle and create collaborative community art? Can we produce things and have them become public property as opposed to private? However, private ownership is associated with status. What is the point in owning art, a tool, or anything really if it sits in one’s house only to be gazed on by a few sets of eyes, or used by nobody most of the time?

At Burning Man I am truly WOWed by the art I see there every year. Every year it seems to get better. I have a feeling it is because of the social capital that is built at the event. By artists and burners interacting with each other on an annual basis, we learn from each other and evolve our ideas, just as we evolve our counterculture movement. This means that the art that is created at Burning Man, and the gifts that are freely given, create an immeasurable amount of social capital. This social capital can be directly converted into innovation of new ideas, further radical self-expression, and increase meaning injected within our society.

Art can and should be shared to derive its value. Art becomes more valuable not by simply being rare, owned, or having a price tag associated with it. Art has value because it can connect us to each other, through the process of creation, interaction, as well as the experience it provides for people. If art can influence more people by being in the public domain, then one could argue it has more value because of the quality of experiences it creates versus a piece of art that sits in a private collection. I am particularly drawn to art that facilitates experience because of this quality as opposed to art that is seen in a traditional museum setting. Granted art is preserved better this way, but is lost in the experience for me.

If people focus on accumulation, then naturally that accumulation would seem to us a meaingful pursuit. But what if it is not a meaningful pursuit? What if ownership and purchasing is merely a temporary dopamine high? People may be accumulating more to get that temporary high again and again. However, what if truly sustained highs come from sharing memories and experiences with others? What if it doesn’t come from the accumulation at all? The dopamine rush we get from purchasing something new is the equivalent of getting high, and the response wears off over time. Once the response has worn off, all that remains is this innate craving to acquire without any pragmatic reasoning. It becomes irrational addiction, and a person’s life will be consumed in service of this addiction.

However, when we transform natural wealth into built wealth, such as communal art like as seen at Burning Man, the result is social wealth whereby everyone benefits from the shared experience of participating in that art. The potential for that social wealth to grow is exponential–particularly as more and more people interact with it and with each other. In essence, art is a form of social capital because it has the power to connect us to each other by getting us to engage and interact with one another through shared experience.

The interactiveness of art on the playa is a stark contrast to passively observing it in a museum .The art is meant to be engaged in, played with and become a moment of self discovery and discovery of each other. For instance, in 2008 I was interacting with a piece of sound art that was made up of doorways that sensed when people went through them. When one crossed the threshold a noise would be heard, and if one stood in the doorway the noise would continue to pulsate.  By walking through different doorways it would make rhythms and sounds that became more and more complex the more individuals interacted with them. Others would come by and see what I was doing—their interest intrigued and suddenly we were making beautiful music together. The true art is the shared moment of interaction that happens with the other individual, we instantly become beholden to each other and our reliance creates mutual harmony that goes beyond a simple sound rhythm. This is the ultimate resistance in a society that fragments and works at creating dichotomies and pitting people against each other. It is a capitalist aim to separate our power by enforcing competition and individuality. We are not meant to discover our true power which comes from a process of opening and reciprocity.

The participants themselves become interactive art as well. It is not uncommon to see many styles of performative art as diverse as a transsexual looking to throw you in a dungeon for a show; men in business suits walking aggressively through the desert ranting about their stocks crashing and having fake boardroom meetings; and hundreds of bunnies throwing a bunny parade with signs accompanied by a mob of carrots who come out to protest with signs over the travesties bunnies have done to the carrot population. Burning Man has an explicit rule of no spectators. Everyone is meant to be a participant and others are constantly trying to get you engaged–turning you inadvertently into the performance. It is another form of resistance out there. In our normal culture the metanarratives dictate what we do, what we see, and what role we play which is to passively except and observe. Whether it is passively flipping through magazines and ingesting a one-way directional worldview through images and advertisements, or passively watching television, or passively looking at art and sculpture behind a velvet rope and under the supervision of security guards; or the worst yet—passively accepting a government’s action because it is so far removed from any chance of participation that no context exists. This is the extreme—us as spectators equals voter apathy. Hell, even most voters are still only spectators partaking in that one politicized event every few years and that’s the end of it. The rest of our political will is spent by passively watching it unfold on the news.

What Choice Do I Have?
If I have grown up a burner, and I hold these ten principles as personal values, then ultimately I had no choice, but to become a willing participant and contributor towards this new cultural shift so many of us have been looking for. We need sustainable economics, thriving communities, and authentic engagement. Ultimately, we need genuine wealth. Nothing happens by sitting down, especially when it comes to fixing so many of the things we see as messed up. Buy nothing year, is my ‘stand up and do something’ project, and I came back from Burning Man with more resolve than ever, that this project is worth taking on.

2013 Man Burn     IMG_3869        IMG_3775
2013 Man Burn         Watching man burn with Safire      Glow of Man Burn & Gnome hat
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About Geoffrey & Julie

Geoffrey & Julie are Calgary-based roommates embarking on a one-year life experiment in not buying sh*t.

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