Monday, December 21, 2015

Bonfire or Festival? What is Burning Man?

Burning Man in Black Rock, Nevada
In The Madwoman in the Volvo, Sandra Tsing Loh takes the audience on a journey through her midlife crisis. Menopause, an affair, divorce and more all converge on stage as she hilariously recounts a time of rediscovery. The catalyst for it all? Burning Man.

Burning Man all began with a San Francisco beach, one phone call and three men, sort of. Two friends, Larry Harvey and Jerry James, decided to go burn another man—a wooden one—for the 1986 summer solstice. Throwing some scrap lumber together, they assembled the first “burning man,” invited a few more friends and then set their man ablaze. As the fire brilliantly lit the shore, a small group of onlookers gathered and, with that moment, Burning Man was born.

Ariel shot of "Black Rock City" where Burning Man is currently held
The gathering grew as the years went on. Much like the wooden man—dubbed simply “The Man” by participants—the event has continued to grow and doesn’t show much sign of slowing down. Following the first burning, the second burning man was 15-feet tall and the community had a “population” of 80. By 2015, Burning Man had a towering 105-foot man and a population of 65,922. But what continues to draw thousands of people to the event? Is it just about starting a fire and watching it burn?

It’s not exactly a festival, but more of an event that reinforces the idea that everyone gathered are not just witnesses but an active participant to the event. As people gather in a dry lake bed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and set up camps, they work to create the temporary Black Rock City, where art, self-expression and self-reliance are a must. The city and event last for about a week and participants are required to bring their own survival supplies. Think camping, but with some extreme conditions like sudden sand storms, extreme heat and arctic-like nights. There’s a reason Burning Man organizers provide a survival guide and checklist of what to bring.
From 2013's Burning Man event

Black Rock City is designed to be a safe, fun and positive environment. More importantly, Burning Man has become a place for people to get away from society including its rules and structure and find a sense of freedom, inspiration and community. The event operates from 10 principles: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. Taken together, these create a different sense of community and society outside of the normalcy of life that many participants are seeking to take a break from.

Art piece featured at Burning Man
Artistic expression is a huge component to Burning Man, as giant art sculptures, installations and pieces are set up all over Black Rock City. Through the art, music and interactions, many past Burning Man-goers have found future spouses, partners, roommates and long-time friends. Theme camps and villages also make up the city and provide different places for participants to interact through classes, lectures, lounges, music and more. For example, at the “Flattery Camp,” you can sign up and be showered in, well, flattery that is both sincere, humorous and comforting to help cheer up any downtrodden Black Rock City dweller.

Sandra Tsing Loh was not immune to the effects of Burning Man: she had a life-changing realization there, in the midst of a sporadic sandstorm. While highly unconventional, the event has become a gathering place for many that provides new perspectives and experiences.

It’s a perfect place to spark a midlife crisis.

Learn more about Burning Man
A Burning Man Timeline
Learn more about The Madwoman in the Volvo

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