In the pre-sunrise darkness of a late August morning last year, I embarked for Burning Man. Though it was my virgin year, the festival had intrigued me long before I ever met any burners (people in the community). Though most people associate the event with hedonism and wild behavior, the diversity of Atlanta’s burner community and the Ten Principles convinced me to attend. This post is in no way comprehensive of my experience, the festival, or the burner community. Rather, it attempts to answer its own title.
At the gate to Black Rock City, the greeting of “Welcome home!” felt a little strange at first, given that home was a new place. Yet quickly I realized this home is one where everyone lives her own way. So despite the lack of familiarity for some, Black Rock City is home for all of its citizens.
Burning Man is as notorious for crazy costumes as it is for lack of any clothing, equally famous for decorated bikes, intricate and massive art installations, and fire performances. (Google, Facebook, etc. can provide plenty of visuals.) These examples and more embody Radical Self-Expression. Not surprisingly, I saw plenty of nekkid and near-nekkid folks. Wild hair or wigs, plenty of tattoos and piercings, wacky body painting were even more common. And true to reputation, chemicals of all kinds abounded (though I and many others chose not to imbibe—also a form of Radical Self-Expression).
Paired with Radical Inclusion, meaning complete “welcome and respect” to all people and their behaviors, the festival’s environment constantly promotes individualism, becoming quite the free-for-all. Center Camp—coffee house arena hosting constant performances on two stages surrounded by couches plus yoga practioners and acrobats and jugglers and hoopers and poi spinners accompanied by drum circles amidst by people in all states of consciousness—displays a microcosm of the festival, a hub in the literal wheel (given that the festival is oriented in the form of a clock, as in streets are times, such as 4:30).
And not just freedom for action, but freedom from money. Gifting and Decommodification are two other principles; exchanges between people are free and unconditional. The festival strives to be as uncommercial as possible, without “sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.” Black Rock City exists fleetingly, only once a year, and Radical Self-Reliance reqires everyone to bring whatever is necessary while at the festival, including water. Accompanying that responsibility is Leaving No Trace. Anything brought in must be trucked out, even if it changes form. Grey water must leave the desert. Same for trash and recycling.
Despite the environmental awareness, this event is clearly not sustainable. Fifty thousand people cannot live far from a water source. Trucking art and costumes and camping gear into the desert hardly epitomizes practicality. By nature the event must be temporary. The Ten Principles, however, are much more sustainable. As opposed to ideals, which often suggest unattainability or perfection, principles are more easily incorporated into “default life” (what many people at the festival call our day-to-day, perhaps normal??, life). Not that all are unique or I have never pondered some before. Leave No Trace is more established than Burning Man. Compared to the impracticality of living in the desert, the Principles are far more reasonable and even obvious.
So by that rationale, what stops me from living them more often? I had some ideas, but I decided to re-examine my most basic interpretations too. Three of the Principles have “radical” in their names. My default synonym for that word is “extremist,” which both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com confirmed:
- favoring drastic, political, economic, or social reforms
– marked by considerable departure from the usual or traditional; extreme
Yes, those dovetail perfectly with many interpretations of Radical Self-Expression at Burning Man. But they did not prompt any new ideas about integrating Radical Self-Expression more frequently into my default life.
Unexpectedly, though, those definitions did not appear first in the entries for “radical.” Some earlier (as in the first of several) meanings:
Starkly different from how “radical” usually functions in my vocabulary. My perspective changed completely.
“Radical,” in other words (literally, no pun intended), is also “fundamental.” Initially, “radical difference” may register synonymously with “extreme difference,” but the phrases are not necessarily interchangeable. For example, Hinduism, with its multiplicity of deities and their further multiplicity of avatars, considers god(s) radically [fundamentally], different than Judaism. Neither perspective is extremist. Thus “radical” functions as more than simply “extremist”; it can denote something essential or basic that is perhaps different from of another realm of thinking. The original subtitle of this blog was “life outside the mainstream”—not surprising that this alternate definition strongly resonates with me.
A later (less common, after “extremist”) definition returns to the first meanings:
- existing inherently in a person
My updated semantics illuminated a much broader way to interpret the Principles, particularly regarding how to embody them beyond the festival. Radical Self-Expression can encompass more than wild costumes. Sure, get decked out for a party, or even work, if you can get away with it. But in the context of fundamental [radical] self-expression, I can honor myself more often. Standards of appearance don’t have to constrict so tightly that I can’t be myself. I know many Muslim women living in the US, and I have discussed cultural differences at length with them. Many wear a hijeb, even though they did not grow up around women in their home countries who constantly wore one. Their choice is absolutely Radical Self-Expression.
Furthermore, Radical Self-Expression encompasses more than appearance. We express ourselves verbally and behaviorally. I believe it’s possible, though certainly not easy, to honor fundamental (true to self) verbal and written expression of ideas. This blog exists because of that idea, as one embodiment of Radical Self-Expression, in which I strive to express myself as genuinely and authentically as possible. I try to deliver unsugarcoated ideas non-abrasively; I believe honesty and respect are not mutually exclusive. So before I attended Burning Man, I had already begun to incorporate this Principle, though after the festival I understood it more fully.
Likewise, Radical Inclusion is not so unattainable, though surely we all have firsthand experience with the difficulty in refraining from judgment. I have always lived in places where I felt like an outsider, though I try not to value homogeneity. Fundamental [radical] tolerance challenges us all sometimes, but the resulting connections are always worth the effort. Human differences and barriers as far less divisive than they appear. Even people who espouse the Ten Principles received a reminder at the festival gate, in the form of the “Black Rock City 2010 Tip Sheet.” My favorite item:
“Also, don’t waste time passing judment on others for how they’re expressing themselves (or not) – Just because someone isn’t sporting a costume doesn’t mean they aren’t participating in our community. Maintain an open mind.”
[sic, emphasis not added]
In other words, judgements waste precious time and energy. So embrace rather than exclude. Be receptive. Unconditionally support and accept those in your community and beyond. Relish the diversity. Opportunities are everywhere.
Another principle I appreciate is Communal Effort, the importance of cooperation and collaboration, public spaces, and “methods of communication that supports such interaction.” Most art at Burning Man is not displayed for the outsider perspective of a gallery or museum. Climb on it, carve on it, write on it, create it further. Group effort has incredible potential, beyond mere artistic context. The Atlanta Beltline exemplifies collaboration, uniting practical, alternate transportation with art. Its scope, both in vision and implementation, is impossible without Communal Effort
Similarly, Civic Responsibility requires respect and concern for others amidst Radical Self-Expression and group efforts. The carnival atmosphere of Burning Man is not self-centered anarchy, but rather people taking care of each other, whether friends or strangers. Black Rock City rules are few, but the 5mph speed limit is both essential and respected for the safety of all, whether in vehicles, on bicycles, or on foot. More broadly, Communal Effort and Civic Responsibility synthesize both “love your neighbor” and the Golden Rule. Act as you wish, but with respect to those around you. As needed, take care of each other. People share food, water, clothes, fire toys, drugs, alcohol, bikes, musical instruments, toilet paper, first aid kits, anything brought to the city.
This same care can happen in default life; we can balance personal actions with respect for others. My life is one of near-constant sobriety, but drug and alcohol use does not bother me (Radical Inclusion) so long as safety is respected. For example, I think people should decide how much alcohol they wish to consume (as well as the days on which to purchase it–whereas in Georgia, Sunday alcohol sales are still illegal). Driving after excessive consumption, however, dishonors the safety and welfare of others.
Group awareness and community action require Participation, another principle:
“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….We make the world real through actions that open the heart.” [emphasis added]
Burning Man’s theme in 2010 was “Metropolis,” a powerful reminder that most of the world’s population lives in cities. The global interdepence via economics and environmentalism notwithstanding, perceived separation from your immediate community is mostly an illusion. Whether or not you participate actively in politics, education, or social activities, even your simplest actions and choices affect others. I value opportunities for participation on many levels, and the participation of others, whether through art, community service, or actions as simple as picking up trash while walking the dog, always inspire me.
People have always pondered and enacted Immediacy, the final principle.
“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.” [emphasis added]
Be present. Right now.
That powerful natural world includes humans and what they create. May creative expression be the kindling for community, participation the fuel for change. Welcome home.
SK © 2011