Unless you’ve been living under a rock without Wi-Fi for the past twelve months, you’ll either know or be in denial about the fact that, in 2016, majorities in the US and the UK voted to reject the establishment in favour of the unknown. The triumph of Trump’s campaign, initially laughed off as a farce, has prompted despondent undergraduates to contemplate “dropping out and becoming a far right demagogue – seems like an easy gig”. After a series of unexpected victories for right-wing populism, intolerance and discrimination are on the rise, sometimes manifested in violent criminal acts. People long oppressed by mainstream social norms are scared of what the future holds for them, at a time when their right to equal treatment is only just starting to be acknowledged. Post-Brexit, post-Trump and post-truth, people with left-leaning liberal values find themselves wanting to escape intolerance and bigotry. They dream of a place where people can express their identity free from anxiety. A place where one’s value is derived from simply being human. A place where we can all bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat it and be happy (ten points to whoever gets the reference).
To my knowledge, this is a cake we cannot have, let alone eat. So allow me to introduce you to the next best thing: Burning Man Festival.
Larry Harvey unwittingly created Burning Man Festival on the Summer Solstice of 1986, when he built an impromptu 8 feet tall wooden man and set it alight on Baker beach, San Francisco. It was an act of “radical self-expression” that attracted around twenty curious spectators. Fast-forward thirty years and Burning Man is known the world over and in 2016 had 70,000 attendees. The wooden man they burn on the last night is now 43 feet tall.
Burning Man is many things. In essence, it’s a non-profit, non-commercial place for experimentation, expression, appreciation and collaboration, and it is defined by a unique culture that attendees, called Burners, wholeheartedly embrace. The festival is held annually in late August at Black Rock City, a community that exists for one week before being dismantled: attendees must “leave no trace”. This is one of the Ten Principles of Burning Man. Here are the others.
Harvey wrote the principles in 2004 “as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture”. As such, attendees are expected to respect and embody them. It’s not hard to see that a community founded on principles of radical inclusion and radical self-expression represents a temporary solace for people who feel unable to be themselves for 51 weeks of the year. It’s an empowering experience for all who attend. For many, it is life-affirming.
If you’ve seen 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it won’t take any great stretch of the imagination to visualise Burning Man (it just has fewer metal spikes and more colour and joy). People in a plethora of costumes ride around on bicycles, wearing aviator-style goggles to protect their eyes against the dust. Anything goes in Black Rock City. A quick Google search will give you a small insight into the vast array of lights, colours, costumes, sculptures, modes of transport and activities on offer (I personally would love to see the sweater guy knit himself something to wear at Burning Man).
Burners are strongly encouraged to appreciate, make and even become art. In the spirit of experimentation, challenging stereotypes and pushing boundaries, “art” can mean literally anything on the playa (another word for the Black Rock Desert. See this handy glossary for more). Every year the Festival takes on a different theme, with past examples including “Rites of Passage” and “Fertility 2.0”. Some people go to dance to a genre of music that they really like (there’s something for everyone, especially you, techno fans). But everyone leaves having discovered an obscure sub genre they’d never heard before. At Burning Man you may come across people with backgrounds entirely different to your own (although the festival has been criticised for the undeniable whiteness of most Burners). You may meet people you otherwise never would have had the opportunity to meet. You may learn a great deal about your own humanity and the world around you. A chance encounter could change your life. And here, in the middle of the desert, surrounded by aliens and drag queens and naked people, you feel a million miles away from the divisive attitudes that have become all too familiar.
What really strikes me about the cultural phenomenon of Burning Man is the fact that people must feel incredibly strongly about being a part of this inclusive, loving, empowering experience. You have to be incredibly determined to get to Black Rock City: not only is it relatively inaccessible, the environment is also harsh and inhospitable when you arrive. And yet it attracted tens of thousands of people last year and continues to grow.
Of course, as I write this on my Macbook in an independent vegan cafe, it’s very easy for me to encourage readers to spend a month’s salary flying halfway across the world to a massive experimental love-in in the middle of a desert. Despite having to bring everything you’ll need for the seven days you spend on playa, the ticket will set you back £322. The Burning Man project, which organises the festival, is entirely not for profit, so all the ticket money is used to build the various installations and to pay for vital services like security and sanitation. If you want to have a relatively comfortable experience in an RV, you’ll need to fork out another £66 for a vehicle. And, if you’re British, you’re looking at around £600 for return flights to San Francisco from London, not to mention the cost of getting to Black Rock City from whatever airport you fly into. If you plan on hiring a car, read up on the rules and regs first – you can find government-approved information on these here.
On the plus side, if you have a British passport you do not need to buy a visa if you plan on staying in the US for no more than 90 days. There are some important restrictions, however, which you can read about here. For those who want or need to stay a little closer to home, Spain offers Nowhere Festival, which is founded on almost exactly the same principles as Burning Man. For travel information in Spain, click here.
If Burning Man sounds both appealing and feasible, it’s essential to spend some time planning and preparing your trip. For first timers, the official festival guide is essential reading. Black Rock City is, of course, fundamentally inclusive, but not everyone in the US shares those values, and some laws in certain states do not reflect that. If you are an LGBTQ+ traveller, it’s worth having a look at this advice on local laws and customs. If you are a non-binary or transgender traveller and want to learn more about identity and passports, contact the Identity and Passport Service. For information on a range of aspects of travel, within the US in general, click here. If any of your queries remain unanswered, you can contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by email.
Come rain or shine, these corrosive social tensions will persist until we start respecting and listening to each other. Until then – and goodness knows how long we’ll be waiting – it’s totally acceptable to want to mute the news and pretend that everything is right as rain. The desire to throw caution to the wind and spend a month’s salary flying halfway across the world to a massive experimental love-in in the middle of a desert needs no explanation. Burning Man is the ultimate form of escapism.
Author: Alice Mennell (University of Bristol Campus Ambassador for the FCO)