When someone asks you “what’s your favorite city”, you can bet your bottom dollar that anybody who has ever been to Burning Man undoubtedly will come out with “Black Rock City, is my favorite city”. Anyone who disagrees, I’m guessing that it USED to be their favorite city, and then the cultural direction shifted. Now what?
Oh, how we let our cities define us. The culture we create is directly and deeply interwoven with each city’s unique personality, as in any culture or group of people. We used to have our culture and communities be the focal point from which to dictate our whole lives and interactions. Ceremonies and celebrations were timed by the moon and nature’s seasonal flow. Our communities WERE our education systems, our entertainment forms, and the workforce. WE were the ECONOMY… the economy didn’t define us.
Fast forward to 2019, we couldn’t be further away from that model of life. They say that a tribe usually consists of about 256 people. That’s how many people one person actively keep track of, sincerely. 5,000 is the friends limit on Facebook, and to be honest I don’t know who most of you are anyway. Staying in touch has become so impersonal, we tend to fill up our cups with meaningless banter and scroll-past memes mores than genuine human interaction, whereas at Burning Man, it’s quite the opposite. The emphasis is on the human interaction and not so much on their credibility (who you are and where you’re from). The truly ironic thing about living in the Bay Area, which so happens to be the headquarters of the Burning Man office and social climate, is that we’re surrounded by all this culture, but there’s very little real community. There’s no village, no hub, no center camp for which to commune. And that’s making it really difficult for millennials (and everyone else dare I say) to make friends and have a life outside of work, let alone raise children.
I want my “Cheers” damnit. I want my village. My vibe tribe. I want my center camp at which to commune twice a day. I want to build a new city, and one that doesn’t have to go away after ten days.
Co-creating, the ultimate mission, is our lot in life. At Burning Man, everything is in a constant state of creation; of evolution. Art, is how you create culture and evolve it. Inventing new concepts and revisiting the old. Rewriting the rules as we see fit. Why not? If gravity changed, wouldn’t you adjust as best you could? One could say that the same thing is happening with evolution itself…it’s moving faster than we can document or understand, and possibly moving us back towards old ways of life. That is hard to suppress or make sense of for some of us. Sure, some people would prefer to stay ignorant and “asleep”, while the rest of us, are slowly waking you up. Which life are you living?
It’s no secret, Burning Man is on the forefront of creating and defining culture, in a new sense. Like a quantum particle, always changing, always desecrating and then recreating itself different and better; we have continued to ebb and flow with the changing dynamic that is human existence. Now, our mission is to change the culture.
So what exactly does it mean to change the culture? To push the envelope of precipice? To actively seek out the new and refine it, while still relating to the old…. It’s quite a lot to carry, that’s for sure. Especially when met with so much resistance.
The Ten Principles of Burning Man have helped us understand what it means to be a part of a culture and to change it. That can look like simply participating, actively or showing up, even for the messy part. It can mean being self-reliant and self-expressive, even at the expense of being misunderstood . It means taking chances where no one said it was possible; isn’t that what we are all here to do?
Speaking of the impossible, in the Bay Area community, many reflect upon the somewhat recently shattered communities: Ghost Ship and Paradise Fire. Here we saw very vibrant cohabitation brought down to nothing but ash. The community took action. A few months later, FEMA “stepped in” to ASK some of the active Burners Without Borders leaders and for advice. “What do we do?” they asked. With no money and no resources. “Help.” There’s more to that story I don’t know all the details, but it sets the stage for our collective power and wisdom that could be the change many of us are seeking, if we are brave enough to face it. When there is a task to do, Burners can figure it out and get it done; and then light it on fire if need be.
It’s a delicate place to be. Abiding by our principles, we have to be careful not to exclude anybody or anything. Where does that leave us when people mess up or disagree? Perhaps it’s possible to shift what change looks like:
Let’s take the Tenderloin district in San Francisco’s downtown. Some say the Tenderloin got it’s name because street dwellers and slingers used to bribe the San Francisco police department with steaks and other cuts of meat in order for them to keep their mouths shut and turn a blind eye. (How do you even fact check this? I didn’t; it’s too funny)
Today, walking through the Tenderloin is like walking through the worst horror movie ever written. It’s a living nightmare. I was driving through the streets a few weeks ago and I saw a lively dark skinned man shaking a paint can vigorously with a large group around him. I looked closer, expecting to see him huffing paint, but as the moment passed I could see he was indeed spray painting on the wall behind him, telling stories to go with the motions. People gathered round and listened with interest and desire for human interaction written on their faces and I thought to myself, “THAT is how you change the culture. With art. You rewrite the stories with new lessons, and the art is what allows people to HEAR those messages”
So what if Burning Man is holding the spray can, or the paint brush? What if it’s our turn to rewrite this story of love and kindness and truth? What if we could teach the world how to live together in peace in tribes? How to share and learn from each other and live with art and fun as our focus instead of fear and anger.
Burning Man is no stranger to art. But how do we harness the art? What ARE we trying to say? Personally, what are the conversations we need to have in our lives to deal with our criticisms and understand the other side? We cannot keep going down this anti-global-warming rabbit hole for a second longer.
If I have learned a few things about my time with Burning Man and developing my own leadership skills around community organizing, I can say this: Don’t start the fight if you’re not willing to be the bigger person. Don’t let the need to be right over shadow the desire to get along.
“Being offended should always be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it,” Said Jamie Dewolf of Tourettes Without Regrets, the legendary variety show in Oakland, CA.
And I am here, to piss you off. To challenge you. In order to push the envelope, we must first open it!
My grandfather always told me, “we’re not arguing, we are brainstorming”.
So, let the brainstorms begin. And the action to follow. Tell me, what are you purveying?