In a capitalist society like America, it’s hard to get away from commercialism. Here, TV and radio shows are interrupted every few minutes for commercials, alternative music festivals are supported by brand name advertisers and public radio or sports stadiums couldn’t exist without corporate sponsors.
Burning Man is an exception to that rule. This annual art festival, held in the Nevada desert, keeps commercialism at bay, which makes it a very unique experience. Well, and there are a few other reasons that make it unique too… Burning Man is all about self-expression and participation, so it’s not your middle-of-the-road art festival. Everyone is adding to the experience.
The festival attracts around 40,000 people each year, which means that for one week out of the year a city of tents, RV’s and trailers arises on a dried lake bed –fondly called the Playa by Burners– in the middle of nowhere. This place actually has a name: Black Rock City and you can find it on Google maps even though it only exists on week a year. (The Google founders are known to be Burners, as are many others in Silicon Valley.) The only two things you can buy at the festival are coffee and ice, served by volunteers.
Everything else, you have to bring yourself, though chances are that you’ll drink someone else’s wine and eat their food. Two of Burning Man’s mottoes are: extreme self-reliance and gifting.
In Black Rock City there is a gifting economy, often confused with a barter economy. When I was there this year, a man come by our camp with homemade beef jerky and another one with blackberry jam. We walked along the Esplanade (the street closest to the open space in the center) and received free pizza, free champagne and free popcicles from people who were just having fun handing these things out. Then there are the many bars and party tents where you just have to hold up your cup to get a sip of whatever they are serving.
Burning Man is like a Utopia; an ideal world where money doesn’t matter. Everyone who’s ever been has wondered for at last one moment why life can’a always be like this because the world seems to be better off this way…
For the record: Burning Man isn’t free. A ticket for the 2010 event cost up $360, depending on when you bought it (the closer it gets to the event date, the higher the price of a ticket). If you do the math that can easily lead to a revenue of $10 million or more. Apparently, in the last years, Burning Man has been turning a decent profit. Ironically, this has led to disagreements among the three founders. Maybe they should go back to their own founding principles….