10 Things I Learned At Burning Man

In CategoryBurning Man
ByGez Smith

I’ve been back from Burning Man for over a week now. The jetlag has been overcome. The dust has been washed out of my clothes. Normality has been resumed. So how to wrap up blogging about the place?

Well, given I blogged far less than I intended to, for reasons largely beyond my control, I think I’ll just leave you with these thoughts on that legendary festival out in the Nevada Desert.

1. Writing about Burning Man is harder than I imagined

I set myself a goal of blogging at least once a day about my time at Burning Man, with the idea that I’d post up random little thoughts and photos as and when inspiration struck me. However, before I could do this, I had to register as a member of the media with the Burning Man ‘Media Mecca’.

This involved signing a five page legal agreement about what I could and couldn’t do with the content I produced, even what I could and couldn’t say about the festival. I was given a number, which my camera was tagged with, and told that any blogs I wrote on site had to be read and approved by a member of their media team before publication. I was even told that if any of my photos featured people who were in any way recognisable (not just from their faces, but also their clothes, identifying marks, etc) then I would need each of them to sign a ‘model release form’, approving the use of their image online.

Coming from a world of open data and creative commons licensing, it was all a bit of a culture shock to be fair. More than that, it meant blogging became a difficult and slightly paranoia inducing chore rather than something simple and fun, so I pretty much gave up on it, for which I can only apologise to both of my readers.

I can understand why a festival like Burning Man can end up so paranoid about what people say about it, it’s a pretty unique place after all, but I still instinctively believe that trying to control the media is a dangerous and often counter productive route to be going down. I’m very glad Glastonbury doesn’t try to go down this route.

2. Living in the desert really isn’t that difficult

The biggest worry I had before I went was surviving in the middle of the desert. I had visions of it being so hot at midday that all you could do is lie still and shelter from the sun. I’d heard so much about the terrible dust storms that I packed four arabic shemaghs to use as breathing masks, convinced that each would soon become clogged and useless with thick dust. I even packed two pairs of socks for each day on site, having been advised to do so to deal with the terrible effects of the alkaline dust on your feet.

The reality couldn’t have been much more different.

Sure, it wasn’t the hottest Burning Man on record, but the temperature was just like being in the southern Mediterranean. A bit hot around midday, but otherwise fine. The dust wasn’t something you’d want to breathe in loads of, but more often than not I just forgot to put on a shemagh during the dust storms, which were just quite pretty if anything. I only wore one pair of socks per day, and my feet were none the worse for it.

Seriously, don’t believe the hype about it being some sort of difficult survival exercise. Sure, if you get yourself into a messy and dehydrated state, then wander out into the desert at midday with no water, you’re going to run into trouble. But if you’ve got half an ounce of common sense, mixed with an eighth of self restraint, then ‘surviving’ at Burning Man really isn’t any big deal at all, anymore than it would be on holiday in Ibiza.

3. You don’t need to take that much stuff to have a good time

Following on from the ‘survival’ thing, I read loads of different lists online of things to take to Burning Man in order to have a fun time. I wish I hadn’t. It cost a fortune to ship it all out there, or buy it before I got on site, and I brought half of it home untouched. Now, everyone will of course differ in what things they need around them to have fun, but I generally take the view that, at a festival, ‘less is more’, and I wish I’d listened to this instinct more than I did.

I put together a list of things to take based on everything I read, and for the benefit of anyone reading this wanting to go out there themselves, you can download it by clicking here. I’ve annotated it with whether I think the thing was actually useful in the end or not.

4. Burning Man isn’t free from the effects of money

One of the things that most excited me about Burning Man was the idea that it was a community built by everyone attending it, and one in which nothing could be bought or sold for money. What would it be like to live free from money and commercialism for 10 days or so?

Well, it was sadly just like normal life.

The thing is, as much as no money changes hands on site, all people do is spend a fortune on things before they arrive on site. In effect, you spend the same amount of money as at other festivals, you just do it in a different place away from the festival site itself. So rather than it being an exercise in non-consumerism and giving freely, it was an event full of the most conspicuous displays of consumption and resource usage I’ve ever seen. Money and its influence was hugely evident at every turn.

I guess I should have suspected this really. After all, people generally only give gifts to one another when they have a surplus of something, and surplus is one of the distinctive features of a capitalist society. They burned a recreation of Wall Street towards the end of the festival, and I just couldn’t help thinking that it must surely be being done in an ironic way.

5. I’m more of an environmentalist than I thought

One of the big features of Burning Man is burning stuff, and burning it on a huge scale. Art pieces, the Temple, even the man himself. I’ve never seen fires so big, and there really is something hugely impressive about such gigantic burning and destruction.

The thing was though, I couldn’t help but be distracted from the fires by the huge amount of smoke drifting out of them, and thinking how that pollution is not exactly making the world a better place. Combine that with the large amounts of energy needed to power all of the lit up art cars and lasers at night, as well as all the fuel people use to get themselves and their stuff out into the desert, and the carbon footprint of the event feels scary.

I never thought this sort of thing would trouble me as much as it did, but I found myself longing for some of those UK festivals where reducing the event’s environmental impact is at the heart of everything the organisers do. They still deliver an amazing time, and do it with a clearer conscience too.

6. Public participation in radio is great

I went out to Burning Man to see what I could learn to bring back to Worthy FM at Glastonbury, and if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that public participation is awesome. I think we do it pretty well at Worthy FM, talking to listeners via Twitter, email, Facebook and all the rest whilst we’re on air, but we’re nothing like Burning Man Information Radio (BMIR).

BMIR’s camp is in a public place, open for the public to wander into, and people can even just walk straight into the broadcast studio itself, whether the presenter’s live on air or not. The station also has a rule that if someone does walk in and ask to say something on air, then the presenter has to allow them to do so. They don’t have to do this straight away if they’re in the middle of something, but they can’t just tell them to get lost.

This seemed scary at first, but it really was one of my favourite things about the place by the end. During my last show, people were wandering into the studio and going on air to see if anyone listening could give them a lift home, help them find some friends they had lost or any number of other things. One topless girl even wandered in and announced on air that her camp had loads of booze they needed to get rid of, so everyone listening was welcome to come over to their’s to spend the afternoon getting messy with them.

It really felt like the public were at the heart of the station, so I’m interested in looking at how we could introduce some of this to Worthy FM at Glastonbury in 2013. Watch this space.

7. Crowded festivals are more fun

It took me a while to spot this one, but it occurred to me that one big difference between Burning Man and Glastonbury was the energy of the place out in the public areas. At Glastonbury it’s really hard to feel alone, even when you’re on your own, as there are people all around you wherever you go, drinking, partying and generally having it large.

Burning Man on the other hand is a much smaller festival on a much bigger site. Just the area people camp in out there is 1.5 miles in diameter, with much more space going out beyond this too. Compare that with Glastonbury being about a mile long end to end. Then consider that Burning Man has an attendance of around 50,000 people, compared with Glastonbury’s attendance of around four times that amount. Put it all together, and Burning Man feels like an oddly empty festival in comparison.

Personally, I think I prefer festivals where people are all living and partying side by side the whole time. The vast open spaces and emptiness of Burning Man felt a bit lonely at times, in a way Glastonbury never has.

8. Being dry at a festival is lovely

I will say one thing though, for all people warn of the dust and heat out there, being at a festival where everything is dry really is lovely. Even if something got wet, it would be dry a few minutes later. So no getting into a damp sleeping bag at night, no getting up the next morning and having to put cold, wet and muddy clothes back on. There really was nothing like it.

9. Dubstep is big out there too

I know some of you probably don’t find Dubstep to be the most pointless, demoralising and boring music in the world, but sadly I do. So I was shocked to discover that the musical cancer seems to have spread across the world and affected Burning Man as well.

As a resident of Bristol, the city that sometimes claims to have invented Dubstep, I can only apologise to the world, and hope it won’t happen again.

10. Glastonbury is still my favourite festival in the world

Burning Man was awesome, and there really is no other festival like it, but musically, it’s mostly just dance music. Glastonbury on the other hand has a dance village, an acoustic stage, a comedy tent, a circus area, green activism and a whole bunch of other stages with all sorts of different acts on them, all set in a (generally) pretty tolerable environment and location.

I’m getting rather excited about next year’s festival already, and can’t wait to show Bobzilla (the station manager for BMIR) around the place when he comes over to work with Worthy FM in 2013. Bring it on!

5 Responses to “10 Things I Learned At Burning Man”

  1. andy Says:

    Excellent Article Gez. As a veteran of 21 Glastonburys I’m seriously considering Burning Man next year as one of the ‘bucket list’ things. before I become to senile to enjoy it ;)

  2. Gez Smith Says:

    Go for it! It really is a festival unlike any other, and if you need a theme camp to join in with, there’s a very strong British one out there.

    More info on the British contingent that go out there every year here, worth joining their email list too – http://regionals.burningman.com/eu_uk.html

  3. Gordon aka Staberinde on eFests Says:

    I loved reading the above. What a great and honest view of one of the world’s biggest and unique festivals. I too would love to go. I’ve spent hours watching u-tube clips of each year’s festival, reading your article seems to have made it more real. One day….
    P.S. Was a bit shocked by the Media control. Was it image control? Or maybe protecting individuals’ right to anonymity. What happens at the Burn, stays at the Burn?

  4. Gez Smith Says:

    Ta! I was hoping that I could come back as living proof that Burning Man really does exist, and it really is possible to go to it from the UK and survive.

    I’m not 100% sure on the reasons for the media control, other than it’s from them ‘being burned a few times in the past’. I suspect there are at least two reasons behind it.

    One is that there are parts of America that are socially conservative to a degree that would shock even the Daily Mail. They’re always keen to look for ways of attacking festivals like Burning Man, so the festival doesn’t want to make their life any easier.

    Another is the fact that loads of people would be keen to exploit Burning Man as a backdrop for their own commercial projects. Every year they build what is in effect an awesome interactive backdrop for movie projects, and they don’t want people turning up and making free use of it for their own commercial reasons. For example, they’re regularly asked if people can film their band’s music video there, and always say no.

    Companies also try to do commercial photoshoots for marketing campaigns there too. So by restricting what can be published about and from the festival, they restrict a lot of the commercial exploitation they would otherwise be exposed to.

    I think there’s a definite component of anonymity there though, you’re right. If you want to encourage radical self expression amongst participants (and they really do), the you probably do need to protect them with some anonymity.

    It’s an interesting contrast with Glastonbury though isn’t it, where you take it for granted that by attending the event, you may be photographed, videod and otherwise recorded at any time. And yet we’re still pretty radically self expressive, especially after a few pints of Brothers.

  5. Our Second Studio has Landed at Arcadia, Glastonbury 2013 | Worthy FM Says:

    [...] not all – we want you to pop by for a cuppa and say hello, live on air. Inspired by our 2012 visit to Burning Man we decided to create a base close to the centre of the festival, that listeners and festival goers [...]

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