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What Burning Man Can Teach Us About Reinventing Society

Black Rock City, Nevada, the site of the annual weeklong Burning Man event, sets the context for our community’s radical form of creativity.

The world is currently on the cusp of a creative renaissance fueled by technology and human ingenuity. Increasingly, we see new opportunities for personal expression driven by urban planning: spaces for citizen action, the arts, and entrepreneurship. Tech culture has blended with grassroots art culture to form new possibilities. At the heart of this atomic collision is an unlikely force: celebration.

Black Rock City, Nevada, the site of the annual weeklong Burning Man event, sets the context for our community’s radical form of creativity. The notion of celebration attracts a wildly disparate audience and offers space for more than 55,000 participants to experiment. The fundamental design of the temporary city encourages innovation and large-scale collaboration. As such, the city has proven to be an incubator for radical ideas with broader applications in the world. For instance, a closed text messaging network developed by Burning Man participants for use on the playa could be used in disaster areas when traditional cell towers malfunction.

Today, Burning Man is a culture guided by our Ten Principles, crafted as a reflection of the community’s ethos as it organically developed. Those principles—Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Participation, Immediacy, and Leaving No Trace—were forged in the furnace of celebration but extend well beyond. “Burners” are applying these values back to their lives and workplaces—and toward creative capacity development around the world.

In 2005, I watched burners who had spent months preparing for the event leave Black Rock City to travel to Pearlington, Mississippi, to help organize relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit. I was floored. In Pearlington, a town otherwise mostly forgotten, they didn’t just pitch in to help clear the mess; they established an outpost that radiated the Burning Man culture through programs and activities that bolstered the community. For me, seeing how much was possible in translating the culture off the playa helped set in motion what would become The Burning Man Project.

Reflecting on his experience, participant Will Chase wrote: “Using Camp Katrina as a model, this concept can be reproduced anywhere in the world by other crews. Burners out there are able to survive in harsh conditions, creatively problem-solve with substandard working materials, apply civic principles within a community, and have a great time doing it.”

Last fall, a crew of burners set up a pop-up space in West Oakland that thrived for eight weeks. A vacant lot in a distressed neighborhood was completely transformed into a carnival-themed creative community space on the weekends. The space featured art installations, creative workshops, local performing arts programming, artisan micro-retail outlets, and food trucks. As reported by John Curley for the San Francisco Chronicle, “You can see for yourself that art can be a force for urban renewal.”

Now we’re working with kids from challenged areas to explore their environment and build their craft together. The Youth Education Spaceship project is a collaboration among a range of civic, arts, technology, environmental, and educational organizations. Children from ages seven to 15 are learning skills in metalwork, mosaic, glass fusion and blowing, photography, and robotics, as well as information surrounding ancient civilizations, space travel, and astronomy. They’ll use these skills and found objects to craft a spaceship to be displayed throughout San Francisco and ultimately at Burning Man.

The Burning Man culture helps people see themselves and their communities differently and, through art and self-expression, come together and manifest transformative experiences. The Burning Man Project is committed to catalyzing positive change and nurturing the growth of the global creative community—but we can’t do it alone. We encourage you to join us in facilitating and celebrating the amazing things that happen when creative people work together.

This article originally appeared in Makeshift, a quarterly magazine about creativity and invention in informal economies around the world. This is the first time it has appeared online.

Photo via Flickr user Robert Scales

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