Attending Burning Man was the most transformative experience I have ever had. As someone who is obsessed with art, Burning Man is the dedicated global space to showcase the most exciting ideas in experiential, interactive art. In this art world, the traditional rules of museum decorum do not apply – the art is often ephemeral, designed to be played with, or set on fire. The element of danger and intrigue is ever present and essential to experiencing the works. Many people think of Burning Man is a drug-infested music festival. In reality, Burning Man is the world’s largest dedicated, immersive social experiment. Participants in this experiment participate in experiential and revolutionary ideas that are currently driving a global cultural shift.
The new No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man show at the Renwick exhibits work by deeply respected, longstanding artists such as David Best as well as works by younger teams of artists in Foldhaus, who are expanding the boundaries of robotics, sensor, and light technology. Imagination adventurers like HYBYCOZO (aka, the Hyperspace Bypass Construction Zone) build elaborate paths to the otherworldly through geometric polyhedral designs transforming in light. The works are awe-inspiring and wondrous. The art of Burning Man is obsessed with pushing the boundaries of experience and imagination. Science and engineering are no longer disciplines, but tools to create unique art and spaces for experiencing joy and discovery.
During last Thursday’s opening party, attendees from around the world gathered to celebrate the show – it was an Oscars celebration of sorts for leaders, creative designers, engineers, makers and patrons. Unlike the elite gatherings of Washington, D.C. featuring political donors, politicians and the occasional television celebrity, the celebrity of Burning Man are very different. Attendees were adorned in handmade, futuristic costumes and dove quickly and deeply into conversations sharing meaningful experiences with the art. I spent five minutes in a hug with a perfect stranger at the end of the night as we shared a mutual love for our shared value of expression. The Renwick show marks a major milestone of our counterculture being considered by mainstream culture. It was strange to see this community outside of the playa, but it’s an indication of the power of art to instill curiosity and offer space to challenge prevailing norms. However there are important parts of Burning Man that you won’t see at this exhibit. As someone who loves Burning Man, several distinct differences stand out.
The people. “Burners.”
“No Spectators” is a reference to the principle ethos of Burning Man. There is no attending as a passive observer – you are expected to be a part of it – to practice radical self-expression, and gifting, communal effort, and decommodification, among others. After a few days at Burning Man, I stopped noticing what I would otherwise consider “strange” in the default world – the naked people on bikes with goggles and bunny ears, stilt walkers, attractive men in tuxedos valet parking bicycles, or the person driving an octopus spurting fire. “Strange” becomes so varied and ubiquitous after the first few days, what truly stands out is not how people are dressed (although this is often just amazing), it is the constant surprise of kindness, generosity and creativity. Since the time is short, interactions with strangers are not done for credit or with any expectation of reciprocity. The environment is designed as a safe space for all forms of expression – as people engage in expression, it enhances the experience for everyone. We greet each other with hugs, we look into each other’s eyes without fear, without looking away. We embrace strangers and express love in the same way you would to a trusted friend. The love and trust come first, it is not feared or withheld. I hadn’t thought that much about it prior to Burning Man, but our default world interactions discourage public kindness, trust and generosity. These characteristics are associated with naivety and weakness. The expressions of sincere kindness and openness at Burning Man truly stand out. They made my heart physically grow. Until you feel this happen to you, it is very difficult to understand the joy that comes from an environment where it is safe to express this type of affection to strangers. I recommend reaching out to a stranger at the exhibit and initiating a kind interaction. In these spaces, people become the works of art as well.
The gift economy
Acquiring money is a dominant part of our daily lives and often a constant source of anxiety. For the week you spend at Burning Man this anxiety is not present. Your relationship with the environment and other people is not a series of economic transactions and networking opportunities to advance or succeed in the future. Instead the interactions in this environment are nearly opposite. The more generous you are, the more human joy you create. The currency in this gifting economy is a formula of creativity and generosity. This all happens in the present, without the expectation of return in the future. Until you have immersed yourself in this environment, it is very hard to explain how this feels. I observe this shift as an opportunity to see every person as an expression of art and beauty. Like the kinetic sculptures, the detail and love invested in the design of the temple, the people around you awaken as art. Interacting with them can bring you joy and wonder because they are free to express without fear.
Serendipity and surprise encounters
The most magical experiences at Burning Man are discovered accidentally and feel more incredible because they are unexpected. When you arrive at a museum, you know that you are preparing to encounter something interesting. I go to museums in D.C. every weekend. I often cry in front of works of art and deeply appreciate the beauty of the story behind the works. However, Burning Man art is very different. Works of art appear sometimes as a mirage on the horizon. Like a dream or the feeling of first falling in love, it feels like an unexpectedly awakening. Since the artworks are positioned all over the playa, they require a journey. I love the feeling of discovery. Sometimes the works offer you shelter from dust storms and you have to hide inside with strangers. You meet beautiful people hanging on top of sculptures and dangling from them. Sometimes that person is the artist, sometimes that person is going to share a deeply personal experience with you. This is also an unexpected, truly beautiful happening.
The vastness of the landscape
The open skies of Burning Man make for unbelievable sunrise and sunsets, epic dance parties, and entirely different interactions with the art. During the day, artists play with light and materials to interact with either LEDs or natural light. The spaces can offer shelter from heat or wind. As different works of art burn over the course of the week at sunset, the glow of orange flames light up against darkening blue skies. Over the course of the week, people are covered in the dust from the landscape, and gradually become part of it. Another strange impression of Burning Man is that everyone is “dirty.” However, as someone who has experienced love in this environment, the dust feels like more of a conduit for feeling connected to the space and to each other.
The Temple burn
The temple is perhaps the most important structure at Burning Man. In this exhibit David Best transformed the Rubenstein salon into a temple-like art. However, at the real temple (built by David Best many times) people write on the walls, leave ephemera and photos of loved ones who have died over the past year. It serves as a mourning space to remember those who have passed. When experiencing this space, it is uniquely powerful to read the stories left by others and see them crying. There are no spaces like this for non-denominational mourning and empathy in the default world. It is a place free for deeply personal expression of emotion in a public environment. Again, the feelings of safety and love enable connections at the temple that are hard to explain. The mood is a sharp juxtaposition to the fun and lighthearted adventuring elsewhere at Burning Man. In this place you can feel the gravity. People walk slower as a sign of respect. At the end of the week, this structure is burned. The most profoundly beautiful experience I ever had at Burning Man was the first time I watched the temple burn. Nearly everyone at the burn observes it together in a circle, silently. This is the only time that it is quiet. 70,000 people sitting together in silence. Powerful. I realized at that moment that all of us had ventured to the temple. All of these people had gone to connect with the space and empathize with each other. In that sense, the temple becomes a collective work that means something deeply personal to each of us. Watching it burn together is a deeply emotional bonding experience that I will never forget.
Transformational questions you ask from yourself
What do I have to give? What can I create to share? What am I mourning over the past year? What do I have to let go of this year?
The art of Burning Man is one of the tangible representations grounded in a philosophy of principles. I recommend checking out the exhibit, but also thinking about what makes this art possible:
The rules of Burning Man
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.
Words by Amy Morse, Photos by Jeff Martin