Feature Photo: Tom Egan / Courtesy of FigmentBBurning Man is often described as something indescribable, which, to people who haven’t been, sounds both illusive and annoying. Countless travel destinations inspire awe, so it’s hard to believe the annual weeklong arts & culture event held outside of Reno (of all places) could be as magical as attendees say. Still, skeptics intrigued by Burning Man’s widely professed wonders hold out hope for the possibility of uncharted territory in life; the mythical unicorn experience. The desire to see the indescribable is one reason more people than ever before are seeking out Burning Man-style events in NYC, regardless of whether they’ve actually been to the real thing.
To the untrained eye, “Burner” parties, as these offshoots are affectionately called, typically resemble a raucous anything-goes rave. DJs spin through the early morning and the crowd stays for hours, decked out in light-up gear and full of the kind of energy and stamina Red Bull marketers wish they could bottle. There’s no denying these parties are a good time, but are they anything like the original held the last Monday in August?
Charlie Sommer, a native New Yorker and passionate Burning Man attendee, says a lot has changed on the Burner nightlife scene over the last couple of years. It’s become a lot easier to hear about parties, and larger venues accommodate more people. In some ways, this has led to more inclusiveness, and in other ways, dilution.
Sommer looks forward to Burner events, especially since he missed the last Burning Man. A car hit him while he was riding his bicycle in NYC (Navigating the Black Rock City playa on crutches is enough to make even diehards stay home.) Sommer has mixed feelings about how the events scene is evolving though. He recounts how surprised he was to overhear a woman tell her friends, I can’t decide if I should go to the Robot Heart Halloween party or Tao this weekend. He says, “When people weigh their options for a night out and group Burner parties along with everything else, it’s a bad sign for the culture.”
That’s right, there’s a whole Burning Man culture, and it’s not just about partying. Attendees enthusiastically and wholeheartedly adhere to specific principles, ten in total. Principles like gifting, radical inclusion, and participation. These ideals are what makes Burning Man inherently different than a rave or other strictly entertainment oriented spectacle.
The idea of a Burner party is to foster an environment that mirrors this co-op culture. An important distinction in this endeavor is to treat these events as more than entertainment. They are designed to fill an emotional need in the community.
Imagine spending a week in a place where anything goes – except an attitude problem. A world where people smile and wave at the people they pass and strike up personal and meaningful conversations with strangers. Social norms for interacting take on a vibe of the past, probably a past too distant for most participants to have experienced firsthand.
Afterward, it’s impossible to ignore that the world is a much nicer place when people are, well, nicer. Leaving Burning Man and transitioning back into the real world (the “default world”) gives a lot of people reverse culture shock.
“I didn’t leave my apartment for a week after Burning Man,” said Sommer. “Everyone is kind at Burning Man and you come back to New York, which can sometimes feel like the opposite.”
This sentiment is so widely shared amongst people after attending Burning Man that it has a name: “Decompression.” People need help easing back into society, so events with the Decompression theme have started cropping up all over, and not just in the U.S. These parties offer the opportunity to relive the culture for a night.
The name “Decompression” is actually trademarked by the Burning Man entity Black Rock City LLC. Sanctioned events must conform to a set of rules, but unofficial parties in the spirit of Decompression have gained momentum in recent years.
Party-throwers and Burners try hard to foster an environment where the 10 Principles remain the guiding light for attitude and behavior, but that’s easier said than done, especially since the number of attendees who have never actually been to Burning Man is increasing exponentially. How can those people be expected to follow the Burning Man ethos without firsthand insight?
Herein lies another problem. A lot of the Burning Man principles contradict nightlife decorum. Radical inclusion for example – the idea that everyone is welcome and strangers are respected and given the benefit of the doubt. Anyone ever denied entry to a club because they were wearing the wrong shoes or had too many “bros” in their group knows radical inclusion is far from reality. In contrast, ticket collectors who work the entry gate at Black Rock City greet entrants with a “Welcome home” and encourage them to get out of their car for a hug. Try that type of physical affection in the Meatpacking district and someone is liable to punch you in the face.Some of the mores that work so well in the desert just don’t translate after the week’s end. Take gifting – giving something to someone without expecting anything in return. The original Burning Man thrives on this basic idea. Picture pop-up bars staffed by volunteers, and free drinks furnished by other attendees who bought the alcohol and want to share it with you, a soon-to-be friend. There’s no money, so people don’t expect to be paid or even tipped, but patrons are expected to give back to the community in other ways so it will all even out in the end. Interestingly enough, it does.
Mind blowing, right? It seems impossible that a few mooches wouldn’t spoil the whole thing for everyone. Gifting works because it’s tied to a couple of the other core principles – communal effort and civic responsibility. Burning Man attendees are expected to make the environment a better place than it would be without them. And yes, people take that shit seriously.
Try to make gifting work in NYC and inevitable snags curtail it. First of all, working without being paid is a lot harder to swallow when things actually do cost money. A major hurdle for event planners is finding and retaining a strong and reliable base of volunteers.
Not everyone is willing to work for free. When some services are needed but can’t be obtained for free, it creates a sticky situation because volunteers work alongside paid employees, sometimes putting in similar hours for comparable work. This makes it easy for the volunteer spirit to wear off; gifting doesn’t feel as good when the people around you are being paid for a similar contribution.
Event organizers of Gratitude, a large Burning Man collaboration in NYC, recently experienced this conflict in December. The annual event walks a controversial line because it hasn’t always had the permits needed to obtain official endorsement by the Burning Man organization, but it has been dubbed in the community as the unofficial Decompression party. Gratitude relies on volunteers and donates thousands of dollars to charities, but it’s still possible for organizers to make a profit.
“So what?” you might be thinking. Most nightclubs in NYC profit from hosting big parties. It’s expected that organizers will make money. Why else would they throw parties? Out of the goodness of their hearts? Well… yeah. As crazy as that sounds, that’s what some members of the Burning Man community expect, even from event planners technically running for-profit companies.
In the days following Gratitude’s 2013 “Cosmic Mirrors” celebration, its Facebook page showcased an argument of epic proportions. A member of the community wrote the following post:
“I will assume that since this is benefitting honest and open ventures like the Burningman [sic] Project, Burners Without Borders and Figment, that all fiscal information about these events will be made open to the public community. Right?”
Within a couple of days there were nearly 300 comments, some of which were nasty, personal blows. The event page was ultimately removed, likely because no end to the argument was in sight and it was embarrassingly un-Burning Man. (Except for the substitution of common phrases like “Fuck you” with snarkier, yet positive well-wishes; “Sending you lots of love and light.”)Rather than choosing sides, the interesting part here is that there is something to argue about in the first place. It shows a kink in the overall armor. Where there is ridicule by the community instead of appreciation, it can be damaging for future participation. Translation: no more Burning Man events.
Anyone who has planned events knows it’s a tough job. “O Man,” as he is called on the Burning Man playa and in the Burner community, has been a Regional Contact in NYC for ten years, and has spent countless hours helping organize events in NYC. He says there are always people who complain when events aren’t enough like Burning Man, but they choose not to step up and volunteer during the planning process. One thing that is easy to criticize about a lot of these parties is that they focus on one aspect of the culture – raging all-night. The real Burning Man doesn’t revolve around DJs spinning.
For a totally different take on Burning Man events, just look to Figment. David Koren has been working to create a new way of experiencing Burning Man culture outside of Nevada. He is the Founder and Executive Producer of Figment, the annual participatory arts event held on Governors Island since 2007. Like the real Burning Man, Figment is an all-ages event. The festival has grown dramatically to 25,000 attendees in 2013, and it has expanded into ten cities. Koren says Figment is an opportunity for people to get involved in something, be creative, and try new things, but most importantly, it’s totally inclusive.
Money has become a barrier that keeps a lot of people from attending Burning Man in Nevada, as well as parties here in NYC. As a result, events are starting to draw a more affluent crowd, which is another factor contributing to the evolution of the culture.
“Burning Man shouldn’t be seen as a place where [only] Mitt Romney’s kids go to party,” says Koren. “That’s creating the same problem we have in the outside world, where people are excluded from experiences because of money.”
Koren has worked hard to build Figment as a free festival without any advertisers or sponsors. He says participation is key for success, and promoting participation is what will make Burning Man culture sustainable. It’s complicated, however. “The default world upholds a passive entertainment model where people pay to consume an experience,” says Koren. “Attending Burning Man is about creating something that contributes to others’ experiences.” That role is fundamentally different than what people are used to, so a shift in perspective is necessary.
While Figment captures more elements of Burning Man than most, the party aspect is noticeably absent. To some Burners, that matters. To others, it doesn’t. Hopefully it’s enough to tide them over until the Big Burn in August. Until then, the search for the mythical unicorn experience in NYC carries on.