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What Does it Mean to Be a Burner?

A reflection on the Culture of Burning Man by James Edward

It only takes a few EDM festivals before you start noticing the word “burner” tossed around. Maybe you were curious what it meant. “Burner” is a self-identifying term used to by a vast majority of Burning Man attendees. They do like to burn things. Yet, the word seems to float far from the Black Rock Desert in Nevada where the festival is held every year. You might run into a few “Burners” at a party in New York, or Cape Town. If it’s the middle of January, you might further wonder why the festival’s participants identify as Burners year-round, while the actual party only lasts a week. Who better to ask than a Burner….

The remainder of this article was guest authored by James Edward, a self-identified Burner of the Burning Man Regional community, and also researcher of Burner Culture. James Edward answers:

What does it mean to be a Burner? It’s a question I’ve tried to answer for years. It’s a question I’ve asked many self-described burners and gotten varied responses. Surprisingly, none of responses included attendance to Burning Man. Taking that hit of acid you’ve been saving for “the right time,” dressing up in costumes and going to an underground warehouse party filled with other Burners doesn’t quite make you one either apparently. Burners aren’t just hippies, freaks, or techno junkies with Mad Max fetishes.

They come from all walks of life. They are parents, teachers, doctors, and IT professionals. While living and working amongst the rest of us in the default world, their underground network creates a vibrant anti-society.

What they claim distinguishes them from mainstream culture is their own code of ethics, what they call “10 Principles.”  Written by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey, the 10 Principles are the ethical framework that binds the global community of Burners together and is the core ethos of their “Burner” identity.

The 10 Principles:

Immediacy: Overcoming the barriers between us and recognizing our inner selves.

Participation: Everyone is invited to work, everyone is invited to play.

Leave No TraceOur community respects the environment by leaving no trace.

Civic Responsibility: We assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.

Communal Effort:  Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.

Radical Self-expression: Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.

Gifting Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional.

Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Decommodification:  Our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.

Radical Self-reliance:  Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

All this began some 30 years ago.  A group of friends came together on a beach around San Francisco to set a wooden man on fire. Other people who happen to be at the beach that day saw this spectacle and joined the crowd. The following year, they built an even bigger effigy and did it again. More people showed up, and even more the year after that. Through their pyrotechnic destruction, something else was born.

But what did it mean? As symbolic as setting a human effigy ablaze might seem, exactly what it symbolized was left unpronounced. Sure, you can listen to Larry Harvey recount the story of Baker Beach and how it all began and take it as gospel, but it would be arrogant to assume one sole perspective defined the unique significance of the beach party that it eventually transformed into the cultural behemoth Burning Man is today.

As Burning Man grew, so did a community. Eventually, this community expanded beyond the once a year event in the Black Rock Desert. Identifying themselves as Burners, they extended the event year-round by hosting like events all over the world. These mini-burns, or “regional burns” as they are now called, were born partly out of a desire to continue the event year round, and partly out of practical economics. Unless you live in San Francisco or Reno, attending the “big burn” in Nevada is an expensive undertaking. So Burners simply cloned similar events closer to home.

Replication was simple. Burners realized they could attain the sort of life they experienced while at Burning Man, anywhere, by simply following the 10 Principles. No doubt, the regional burns are a product of the life-changing experiences of Nevada’s Burning Man. The main event is of course where the 10 principles came from. Yet, they have since transcended their birthplace and no longer define an event, but an entire culture.

The Burning Man Regional Network is made up of highly organized, intelligent, and passionate people that play a key role in the year-round extension of the Burning Man experience, supporting it as a global cultural movement.

In cities around the world, Regional Contacts help local Burners connect with each other while bringing Burning Man principles and culture into their local communities through events and activities. Anyone can go to the Burning Man Organization website to get in contact with their Regional Contact and get involved year-round.

My first Burn was in 2012, although I’d been to several parties hosted at Burner cooperatives throughout Chicago. When I attended my first Burner party I unexpectedly found a dynamic, thriving, and accepting community.

When I attended my first Regional Burn, Lakes of Fire, I realized I’d entered more of a fantasy world than what I considered reality. As in many fantasy tales, especially a la Miyazaki, the main character goes through a metaphysical transformation by crossing a river, entering a forest, or some sort of natural obstruction. Or in Plato’s Allegory of The Cave, there are several symbolic steps the imprisoned man takes to reach enlightenment: breaking the chains, seeing the images on the wall for what they are, the ascent, and beholding the sun for the first time.

When I arrived at Lakes of Fire, I drove on a narrow dirt road lined with massive pine trees until I arrived at the gate. I was met by the most cheerful and genuine mass of people- some naked and painted- that ran up to hug me and welcome me “home.”

As the sun set on the horizon the night of the burn, the art cars began their parade around the lake, ending their parade at the effigy. My campmates and I gathered our lawn chairs at the beach so that we could watch the effigy be engulfed in the flames. Fireworks painted the night sky and fire dancers danced around the effigy.

As the fire dancers finished their routine and the fireworks ended, the effigy caught fire simultaneously with the boom of the last of the fireworks. Under the light of the moon, the flames danced in the air, illuminating the lake in the foreground and the forest in the background.

The ashes of the effigy represented all of the time, resources, and effort put forth by the Burners who made their own regional burn come to fruition. The location of the event, a campground in Michigan, was treated as a blank canvas. It was the many artists and makers attending the event who transformed it into an alternate reality. In a single week, they were able to create a place where everyone could be whoever or whatever they wanted, build whatever their ingenuity could create, and come to understand something new about themselves.

Lakes of Fire changed my perception of myself and encouraged me to uphold the ethic of contributing to the experience. Each year that we go back to that magical campground, we strive to do bigger and better things, make bigger and better art. Before attending the event, I’d never thought of myself as an artistic person. Suddenly, I was learning how to solder and constructing massive art installations using sound and motion-activated LED light boards.

I think the primary reason why one becomes a Burner is that motivating and inspiring nature of their ethos. It’s inspired me in ways I before had not thought possible and is a crucial part of the person I am today.

This article was guest authored by James Edward, a self-identified Burner of the Burning Man Regional community, and also researcher of Burner Culture. The content in this article is based on Edward’s thesis entitled “Citizen Burner.” 

To learn more about Burning Man’s Regional Network click here!

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