What Does it Mean to Be a Burner?

The term ‘Burner’ is a common phrase in the EDM community. It’s a self-identifying term used by a vast majroity of Burning Man Festival attendees, some of whom might know how to start an LLC in Texas. Yes- they do like to

About Burning Man

The Burning Man Festival is held annually out in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. This is where a temporary metropolis is created and becomes home to the Burning Man Community annually. The Burning Man culture is manifested around the globe through art, communal effort, and innumerable individual acts of self-expression. If you’ve never attended Burning Man, it’s a magical place full of friendly people, magnificent art, and even a completely immersive theme camp for each division of the ‘festival grounds’.

Who better to ask about Burner Culture and what it means to be a ‘Burner’ than an actual ‘burner’?

James Edward: Self-identified Burner of the Burning Man Regional community, and also researcher of Burner Culture shares his experience and thoughts on what it means to be a ‘Burner’.

What does it mean to be a Burner? It’s a question I’ve tried to answer for years and something I’ve asked others aswell. 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 burner principles have been maintain throughout the years by one the festival’s Cheif Executive Officer, Marian Goodell.

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.

The Conception of Burning Man Festival

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.

What it Means and the Community

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 Buring Man Regional Network

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. They also bring Burning Man principles and culture into their local communities through events and activities. To be involved year-round, anyone can reach out to their Regional Contact via the Burning Man Orgniazation website.

James’ First Burn

My first Burn was in 2012, although I’d been to several parties hosted at Burner cooperatives throughout Chicago prior. 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. 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.

The Arrival

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 the night of the burn, the art cars began their parade around the lake. Ending the 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. 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 Conclusion

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.

In conclusion, I think the primary reason why one becomes a Burner is that motivating and inspiring nature of the Burning Man Project. 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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AC Johner

AC Johner is the creator of the feature documentary Electronic Awakening released in 2012. He is a writer and researcher on topics of electronic music cultures, transformational festivals, and new religious movements. He holds a masters in Ethnographic Journalism from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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