Burning Man Festival – Ancient and modern traditions entwined

By Žikica Milošević

Do you think that it is possible to be a hippie and a hipster at the same time, or a new age proponent and an heir to the customs of your ancestors such as Maslenica or Poklade? And be all that in the most spectacular place, or rather the perfect place for creating “instagrammable photos”, as they say today? Well, then Burning Man is the place for you

Burning Man is a kind of a cross between Woodstock, Exit, bohemian desert exile and a rave party. The festival is centred around the notion of community, art, self-expression and self-reliance, and is held every year in the western United States. It was named after its main event that is the symbolic burning of a wooden effigy nicknamed “The Man”. The festival takes place on the Saturday before Labor Day. But not the one that the whole world celebrates, which falls on May 1, but the local, American Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday in September.

The event has been held since 1991 in the city of Black Rock in northwestern Nevada, a temporary establishment built in the Black Rock Desert about 160 kilometers northeast of Reno. Its desert scenery makes it look surrealistic. According to its founders, Burning Man adheres to 10 principles – “radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy.”

And when it’s all over, festival-goers take everything with them – garbage, tents, themselves – while the desert becomes virginally clean again. Until next September…. The fairytale-like September!

However, the festival was not always held in Nevada but on the beach. Doesn’t it look to you as a typically California invention to you which actually it is? It originated on Baker Beach in San Francisco, which many cite as the craziest and most liberal city in the United States and which at first glance, looks like a mixture of Lisbon and Victorian England, as well as a deeply social experiment in what the future of America might look like. The first festival took place on June 22, 1986, and it was then that Larry Harvey and Jerry James made the first effigy – “The Man” – to burn. In a way, this festival is reminiscent of the March Fallas Festival in Valencia, where effigies of all possible shapes and colors are burned to mark the end of winter. But let’s go back to America. Since 1986, it has been held every year, for nine days until and including the Labor Day. Throughout the event’s history, attendance has been constantly growing. In 2019, 78,850 people came to the festival which was not held in 2020, unfortunately.

Emma Bowman best described its evolution from an anti-establishment festival to an alter-establishment event by saying: “Once considered an underground gathering for bohemians and free spirits of all stripes, Burning Man has since evolved into a destination for social media influencers, celebrities and the Silicon Valley elite.” That’s what the alter establishment is. One anonymous participant said it was a place where no-one will ask “why?” but rather “why not?”

The Temple is the second most important building at Burning Man, according to its organizers the Burning Man Project. “The Temple is a community shared space that is an important part of Black Rock City. It is not a temple in recognition of any religion; it’s a neutral, non-denominational spiritual space where everyone can gather to share in the experience of remembering the past, honoring or cursing the present, and pondering the future to come.” On the festival’s last night, the Temple is burned right after the effigy.

So, what is there to do at the festival? Burning Man is, first and foremost, a venue for showcasing large-scale interactive artwork inspired by the cross-section of producer culture, technology and connection with nature. There are also Mad Max-style “Mutant Vehicles.” These are purpose-built or creatively modified motor vehicles. The term “vehicle with mutations” was coined by the organizers of the burning event to outline the type of an “Art Car” that was modified more dramatically than simply decorating an existing vehicle. They look absolutely insane against the backdrop of the blue sky and ocher sand of the desert. Of course, music takes a central stage here, mainly electronic. At Burning Man, at night, various DJs put together big parties under the starry sky while during the day, most of the festival-goers ride their bicycles.

And when it’s all over, they take everything with them – garbage, tents, themselves – while the desert becomes virginally clean again. Until next September…. The fairytale-like September!

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