Updated: Sep 12, 2019
By Andrea Orlando
The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking
You know you've entered an alternate reality when the people around you refer to everything else as the "default world." Burning Man is by any measure a unique experience, but what makes it a unicorn among events is not merely the arid landscape or the striking art pieces. It's a set of principals and a culture that guides the way people interact, and therein lies the lesson for creative placemakers.
For me, a number of sensations contributed to the other-worldliness of the experience. First of all, it happens at one of the driest, flattest places on the planet, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. The ground is dry and cracked. The thump-thump of electronic dance music hit my ears at various levels of intensity, but when I got far enough away from the tunes and the din of generators, the silence was truly silent. I didn't hear crickets or birds or frogs.
The large art installations that dotted the landscape were also also striking against the backdrop of mountains that rose up on the horizon in every direction. A pleasant, smokey aroma intermittently hit my nose and reminded me of winter evenings in Vermont. During the day, the sun felt fierce, hot and blinding. At night, the air felt comfortably cool and dry, and the sky was lit by stars I almost never see here in the New York Metropolitan Area.
The breezes were laden with a ubiquitous powdery dust, and most people brought masks to cover their noses and mouths when the dust felt particularly thick. After a few days, my partially exposed, unwashed skin got caked with the substance, and my hip-hop pants acquired a hard, dry chalky texture.
But scratch just below the surreal surface, and you find yourself in a place where people--tens of thousands of them from all over the world--behave differently. The event is unlike any other due to the culture of this pop-up city. This is something I've been pondering for several months, ever since I read, "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters" by Priya Parker. In the chapter entitled, "Create a Temporary Alternative World," Parker observes that pop-up rules have become increasingly popular and concludes, "If the standards of etiquette are fixed, imperious, and exclusionary, pop-up rules have the power to flip these traits on their head, creating the possibility of more experimental, humble, and democratic--and satisfying!--gatherings."
Ten principals guide the way people live at this weeklong gathering. They evolved organically after the first burn in 1986 on a San Francisco beach, but were put into writing in 2004 by the late co-founder Larry Harvey. They are communicated the moment you visit the website to register. In fact, you must learn the ten principals and pass an online quiz before you can even create a user profile.
I'm not suggesting that all creative placemakers adopt all the Burning Man principals for their gatherings, but I did have a few favorites that I'd like to highlight. Immediacy is one of them. We talk about being "in the moment" all the time, but how often do we actually do that? At Burning Man cell service and WiFi are almost non existent, so I was forced to be alert and present. For me this meant having a few beautiful, memorable interactions with strangers. At one point, I found myself sitting in an art installation called, "Ba Ba Land." The piece included a hot-tub sized enclosure with stuffed sheep and a nearby circular display of lights in changing colors and patterns. After sunset, a dozen of us randomly gathered in the pit, some of us hugging the stuffed toys, and one man led the group in a spontaneous game of free association. As we watched the mesmerizing lights, we took turns randomly calling out whatever word came to mind. How strange and wonderful and amusing it was to share moments of laughter with strangers.
Another principal that I particularly enjoyed was Radical Self-expression. My appreciation for this one was unexpected. I thought I'd stand out as the boring person wearing clothing among hordes of naked masses. It turns out that most of us wore at least some clothing, and radical self expression is so much more than a wardrobe choice anyway. At one point I found myself dancing with strangers at an impromptu dance party. It made me feel at home.
Home. That was another word I heard a lot at Burning Man. Burners call the event home, and I can understand why. If you think the uptight society depicted in the movie-turned-Broadway-show, "Footloose" is merely hyperbole, try telling people that you like to go out Latin dancing. So for me it was refreshing to not get the side-eye for my pastime, even if only for a brief spell. How can we instill this judgement-free ethos in our day-to-day creative placemaking, I wonder? How much better off would we all be if we could have even occasional moments of feeling like we belong somewhere?
Gifting was a principal that turned out to be a blessing, rather than a burden. Before I left home, I worried about not being a visual artist, who I imagined would all arrive with a cache of one-of-a-kind gifts. But it turned out, I had plenty to give. Gifts I gave at Burning Man: a jug of water, a package of jelly beans with electrolytes, trail mix bars, an unopened jar of peanut butter, hugs, a bandage, a piece of duct tape, my attention, and two sparkly hair clips. Items I received at Burning Man: a bike tube, a lesson on how to replace a bike tube, hugs, lights and day-glo ribbons to decorate my bike for nighttime riding, a handmade cloth bag for trash, expert body painting on my arm, a delicious bean-paste bun, an ice cold can of beer, and an abbreviated geological history of the place. And the people who gave me gifts were not the same people who received mine. It was not bartering in any way. It was all random for me.
Other parts of the culture are communicated by veteran burners who pass the customs on to newcomers. For example, when I drove up to the gate I was met by two greeters who inquired if I was a first timer. When I answered in the affirmative, they asked me to exit my vehicle, lie on the ground and make an angel in the dust, the same way you would make a snow angel in freshly fallen snow.
I could go on about all the thought-provoking art I took in, all the fun people I met, and all the soul-affirming experiences I had, but I'm eager to get to the exciting news. Here at The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking we're looking towards a future that includes some of the people who make the Burning Man magic happen from behind the scenes. Meghan Rutigliano, Associate Director of the Regional Network for Burning Man, will lead an opening activity at our upcoming 2019 Midwest Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit in Cincinnati, Oct. 10-12. And Kim Cook, Director of Art and Civic Engagement, is joining the teaching staff for the Certificate in Creative Placemaking program offered jointly by The National Consortium for Creative Placemaking and New England College. We'll soon have more to share about these new collaborations, so please stay posted by signing up for our mailing list and following us on social media where our handle is @cpcommunities .
Note: The Remote Control sign pictured below was designed by Patrick Seal.