Rules among the unruly
Bring your shorts, leave the feathers
Many perceive the Burning Man festival as a hedonistic free-for-all, an exuberant desert party where radical self-expression is the rule and extreme viewpoints and lifestyles are the norm. Over the past few decades, a culture of self-described Burners has emerged, and with it, a set of cultural standards have developed with the festival. Within the wide and blurred confines of artistic exuberance, the rules are pretty cut and dry: Leave no trace, leave your firearms at home, be a good campmate. Though things like bringing whole pistachio nuts to the event won’t get you thrown out, you will be subject to the chilling stare of a disapproving hippie-raver soccer mom, who will waste no time in setting you on the right path. Here is a condensed primer of Burner culture that will keep the Department of Public Works from firing a pair of pants from a cannon in your direction for the grievous offense of walking past their camp naked from the shirt down.
Not everybody dresses up, and that’s OK. The idea is that everyone does something useful and beneficial to the community. Nonetheless, costumes and pageantry are a big, important part of Burning Man. The opportunity to assume a new identity is exciting to many Burners, but as you assemble your costumes, things like feathers and sequins that could litter the playa are better off at Mardi Gras than at Burning Man. Leave the plumage, and bring a pair of comfortable, worn shoes. Even if you are in costume most of the time, you probably won’t want to wear stilettos to breakfast after a late night.
Burning Man is a place to ask. Ask how you can participate, ask how you can be included in a project, and of course, ask before you take a picture. This is probably one of the biggest issues within Burning Man culture. Nothing can turn a sweet fairy wearing nothing but sparkles and wings into a surly, obscenity-shouting pirate than an unsolicited photo shoot. All cameras and videos need to be registered at Media Mecca, and while some find this protective measure obtrusive, it is a pragmatic way to help protect the privacy of individuals and the integrity of their artwork.
In an environment founded on radical self-expression, even the most open-minded individual can encounter a disconcerting, uncomfortable or boundary-testing circumstance. If you find your way into a “Tantric Painting with Whipped Cream” workshop and it’s all just too sticky and strange, hand your neighbor a baby wipe before making a 90 degree turn to walk in the opposite direction. Look, it’s the BookMobile, a school bus converted into a mobile library. The driver hands you Caravans by James Michener and says it’s a good book for the desert. How did he know you just enrolled in a class about the historical conflicts in Afghanistan? Now you’ll have something intelligent to say to your professor since you’ve missed the first week of school to go to Burning Man.
If you ask a group of Burners what the best thing you can take to Burning Man is, you’ll get a random laundry list of practical and humorous answers. The best response besides water is to bring an open heart and an open mind.